Sunday , May 27, 2018

Gonzales: An autism hero at the moviehouse

MY eldest son loves to go to the movies. While my entire family loves to watch foreign films as a form of bonding once in a while, my eldest son is my constant companion and “barkada” when it comes to watching Tagalog movies. I am always updated with what cheesy or comic local movies are currently showing and the moviestars acting in them because my son who has autism is keen on this kind of information.

When he was very young, I did not enjoy much this kind of social interaction and outing with him. Like most individuals with autism, he had sensory issues that we had to address first. One of the things we had to do was to help him adjust to places with many people, just like the church, school, or malls. We had to make efforts to attend parties and family gatherings to expose him to meeting new faces without crying or making tantrums.

We also had to help him adjust to random sensory inputs like noises, loud sounds, dark rooms or bright lights such as those coming from the big projectors of the movie house, as these inputs made him cover his eyes and ears and affect his behavior. In some instances, we had to train him not to imitate the sounds or actions he hears or sees from others. For example, if he sees a person crying or angrily shouting, he also gets agitated, sad or excited, depending on what he sees.

Of course it did not take us overnight to help our son get used to sensory inputs. Each individual with autism spectrum disorder is unique so that some children or adults will take longer than the others to overcome sensory issues. The parents and the family, of course, are the biggest factors in helping the child overcome his sensory problems. Fortunately for us, we are now enjoying the fruits of our perseverance and our son generally enjoys going out with the family without much problem.

Two weeks ago, my son and I went to the movies at SM City Davao to watch a Tagalog film. The screening was supposed to start at 2:30 p.m. but when we arrived at the cinema, it was closed. We were informed that if there were no moviegoers within the first 15 minutes of the screening time, the protocol is to close the movie house for that duration. The next showing was at 4:40 p.m.

For obvious reasons, my son and I were both naturally upset. For him, it was a sudden change in routine and schedule, while for me, it was a not a joke that for two long hours, I had to explain things and keep him distracted from reacting to the sudden change. We were both not prepared for this disruption in our supposedly planned relaxation.

The first 30 minutes of waiting was very challenging as I was also controlling my own feelings of frustration for having to wait for 2 hours but I had to appear calm and relaxed to avoid agitating my son. He was also trying to control his behavior and I allowed him to do some mumblings aloud. I was already running out of ideas to assuage him with stories and explanations. I was afraid that he might not be able to hold through and give in to an embarrassing outburst of temper in such a public place.

It was as if my prayers were heard because Mr. Ed Bayani, the General Manager of SM Cinemas, suddenly appeared as he was doing his rounds. I met Mr. Bayani years ago when I conducted several orientations on autism with the frontline staff and security personnel of SM in line with their program called “Caring for Special Customers”. Mr. Bayani and I also worked together during the first “Sensory-friendly Movie for Individuals with Autism”, a joint project of the Autism Society Philippines and SM, wherein a special day was allotted for children with ASD to give them a memorable experience in watching a movie for the first time. SM adjusted the lights, sounds and temperature of the movie house to address the sensory issues that might affect the children. My sacrifices at advocacy work paid off.

I did not even ask for accommodations from Mr. Bayani. I was merely sharing my predicament for that two hours of waiting, and he immediately understood the situation. And so the next thing we knew, my son and I were already sitting inside the cinema and watching all the previews of coming films, all by ourselves.

I could just imagine the monetary loss they must have incurred in operating the cinema for just one person with autism but I guess that Mr. Bayani and SM management also could not imagine that what he did was an act of kindness that can never be forgotten and can only be repaid bya lifetime respect, gratitude and prayers. Mr. Bayani has demonstrated a sense of compassion, sincerity and acceptance that every family with autism hopes and expects from society. True to his name, Mr. Bayani is an autism hero. Salamat at mabuhay ka!

“It takes an angel to embrace a person with autism.” - Autism Society Philippines


Jane Ann S. Gonzales is a mother of a youth with autism. She is an advocate/core member of the Autism Society Philippines and Directress of the Independent Living Learning Centre (ILLC) Davao, a centre for teenagers and adults with special needs.

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