The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a world where a special-needs kid is asked to leave Outback, is it okay to go to the movies?

The author's children at a recent showing of "Lion King" (Jackie Spinner)
Placeholder while article actions load

My son had been begging me for weeks to take him to see the new “Lion King” movie for his fifth birthday. He had been to the movies only once before, to a sensory-friendly screening at the AMC. He and his older brother, who is 7, are both autistic, and the special showings are perfect for them. The sound is turned down, and children who need to move during the movie are encouraged to get up to dance and sing. It’s what I like to call a “shush-free” zone. Everyone in the theater is either autistic, with an autistic person or at least knows that the screenings are meant to be inclusive. No one gets shushed at a sensory screening.

But the screenings happen only at select theaters on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, and we were away on vacation this summer when the special screening of “Lion King” took place. The next sensory film at our local theater in Chicago was for a different movie. If my son wanted to see “Lion King,” we’d have to go to the regular show.

I was nervous about doing this. When my sons saw “Toy Story 4” earlier in the summer with their cousins, they yelled at the bad dolls and wiggled off and on. My button-loving younger son kept reclining his chair. There wasn’t anything unusual about their behavior; they’re kids, after all. But my social media feed has been filled recently with news reports about children with special needs being shamed in public or asked to leave because they reportedly were disturbing other people.

There was the boy at Outback Steakhouse in Maryland. There was also the 5-year-old who was asked to leave a showing of “Dumbo;” the 7-year-old who was told to leave a theatrical production of “Aladdin;” the 9-year-old forced to leave church; and the 14-year-old kicked out of a taxi because he couldn’t fasten his seat belt.

The worst part about reading these stories is scrolling through the comments. Consistently, readers bring up the other customers who have a right to enjoy a meal without being disturbed or to watch a movie they paid for.

Yes, of course, I say to myself when I read the comments. That’s why so many kids with special needs, including autism, are so stressed about being in public, masking their disability or pretending to fit in, holding their breath hoping that an outing will go off without “bothering” anyone else.

But able-bodied people who follow a certain set of social norms do not get to decide whose disability is the least annoying before tolerating their presence in a public space. Fortunately, a growing number of businesses recognize this. (Outback has since apologized to the boy with childhood apraxia of speech and announced it would offer better training to its employees.)

When people talk about their right to enjoy a movie or a meal without being bothered by a disabled person, I hear the same argument people used to maintain separate water fountains or to bar people of color from swimming pools. It’s an argument made from a position of privilege, and it’s classic ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities). You don’t get to claim your rights to enjoy a meal have been trounced on when the entire world exists with you in mind and to your favor.

The extra layer of back-to-school anxiety when your child has special needs

“There are a lot of ways businesses can better serve individuals with cognitive disorders or other needs, but one of the most important is training their staff so they are equipped to better serve all of their customers,” said Meredith Tekin, president of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which offers training and certification for corporate, hospitality, health-care and education professionals. (IBCCES is the entity that gives official autism certification to places like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Discovery Cove in Orlando and Space Center Houston.)

“Today, if businesses aren't doing training and working toward inclusivity, they are quickly falling behind those that are reaching out and ensuring they are welcoming to all guests,” Tekin said. “This is a huge need that can't be ignored.”

Public places with unexpected noises, lights and smells are hardest for my oldest son. When he acts out in public, it’s not because he is spoiled or needs to be disciplined. His brain simply cannot process all of the sights and sounds coming at him. As he grows older, he’s learning better what he can handle and how to ask for what he needs. (He was 6 when I took him to the movies for the first time, and we didn’t stay through the entire film). It’s a process, as it is with all children, and the more he is in public, the more he is learning not only how much he can tolerate but also when it’s time to take a break.

He is also learning how intolerant and critical people can be of even minor differences. At Walt Disney World this summer, a little girl criticized him for chewing on a piece of jewelry that he uses to help calm himself. It’s made for that exact purpose, and he was sitting in a stroller, with his headphones on, minding his own business, when she approached him, her mom at her side.

“As a nation, we need to evolve,” said Ande Kolp, executive director of The Arc Maryland, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Everyone has the right to access the community.”

The growing number of well-publicized incidents is an opportunity for businesses to do better, she added. “It points to this incredible opportunity to provide more education and tools to businesses, and as advocates that’s what we are looking at. What can we do to help them understand what their responsibilities are to accommodate all customers of every ability level?”

Many of us raising children with special needs are probably more aware of the gripes of the public than parents of typically developing children. We know all too well how people perceive disabilities because we are either disabled ourselves or we have watched our children endure the stares and glares and unsolicited comments from other people.

All kids have to learn certain behaviors for when they are in public. Kids need to learn that it is not okay to kick the airplane seat in front of them. Kids need to learn that it is not okay to run around a restaurant unless you are in Morocco, where my kids were born, and all the kids are running around the restaurant. Kids need to learn to talk quietly in a library so they do not disturb other patrons, or in a quiet restaurant — although Outback is hardly the Inn at Little Washington. It will take some children longer to learn these lessons than others.

In the meantime, people with disabilities are not going to stay out of public places. Nor should they.

This summer in Orlando, our hotel room was next to a family with an autistic 8-year-old. The boy was nonverbal and made a lot of noise. At night when I was trying to get my sons to sleep (and then fall asleep myself) I could hear him through the walls. Did I knock on their door? Call the front desk and complain? Tweet that the family had no right to bring him to a vacation club? No, I put a white noise app on my phone and made my own accommodation so we could sleep. I was just happy the family was on vacation. I know the act of bravery it can require to face a hostile world.

I ended up taking my sons to see “Lion King” at 10:30 this past Saturday morning. When I bought our tickets, I specifically picked a screening with plenty of empty seats. I chose three seats at the end of a row in the middle of the theater without anyone in front of us and a partition behind us. I had to shush the boys a couple of times and remind them that other people wanted to enjoy the movie, too.

And in the end, we all did.

Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and executive producer of “Don’t Forget Me,” a documentary on autism in Morocco.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. You can sign up here for our newsletter.

More reading:

The unbearable cost of summer camp for children with special needs

How Mister Rogers became a timeless oracle of parenting wisdom

How a T-shirt is helping my nonverbal son to communicate