Moscow foundation acknowledges autism, provides comfort

Opportunities for people with mental handicaps, including autism, are appearing in Russia in various places but society in general is still intolerant towards people with autism. Source: KARO Theater Chain.

Opportunities for people with mental handicaps, including autism, are appearing in Russia in various places but society in general is still intolerant towards people with autism. Source: KARO Theater Chain.

As in India, people with autism and their families often feel like outcasts in Russia. They are not very welcome in public places and going to the theatre or cinema can be a big ordeal. The first movie theatre for children with autism and their families has recently opened in Moscow, and is making a difference to their lives.

Alisa, a little four- or five-year-old girl with two ponytails and wearing a pink jacket, jumps up and begins running in joy between rows, right in the middle of the movie. She keeps running around the seats, tirelessly crying out something incomprehensible. Her father manages to catch up but does not try to have her sit down. He just says, "Alisa, let's watch the film!" Alisa doesn't respond – it’s more fun running around than sitting still.

The KARO 11 Oktyabr movie theatre in the centre of Moscow is showing the animation film, Finding Dory. There are 20 to 30 people in the auditorium, many of them children. Some, like Alisa, occasionally get up and start shouting and running around. Others prefer to sit still and attentively follow the adventures of the little fish searching for its parents. The children's parents are watching the film with them; they are always close by. Almost all the children present are autistic.

Rejected by society

"Usually, when we go to the cinema, we always have a Plan B," said Natalya. She has two children: Vitya, who is autistic, and Elya, who is neurotypical. Plan B means that Natalya and Vitya leave the theatre if he starts behaving abnormally, while Elya continues to watch the film alone.

Such Plans are familiar to all parents who have autistic children. A person with autism lives in his own fragile world and is extra sensitive to any violation of that habitual way of life.

"When a child with behavioural problems finds himself in a social context, he is usually received poorly," said Maria Bozhovich, director of the information service at Vykhod (“Exit”), a foundation dedicated to resolving problems with autism in Russia.

"From the outside this is a normal child, but he or she can act strangely," she said.

Not understanding this, people begin to blame parents for not raising the child in the right manner. By the end, the entire family avoids leaving home as much as possible and remains behind four walls.

Cinema for everyone

The inclusive film screenings organized by Vykhod, together with Disney and the KARO theatre chain, are an exception from this sad routine. Here, no one throws autistic children out of the auditorium if they shout and run around. On the contrary, the atmosphere is very comfortable: the sound is muted, the lights are not completely turned off. The doors to the auditorium are left open so that the children can step outside if they get tired.

For parents of children with autism, an outing to the cinema or theatre can be an unpleasant experience. Since it is very difficult for people with autism to avoid doing what is the usual and daily norm, before going to the cinema the parents go over the "social scenario" with their autistic children: "First we will get into the subway, then we'll arrive at the theatre. We'll sit down. They'll turn off the lights but we won't be afraid…." And so on.

The Oktyabr movie theatre organizes film screenings as part of the "Autism, a Friendly Atmosphere" programme twice a month.

"When our key partners, Disney and the Vykhod foundation, came to us with the initiative to provide such shows in one of our key theatres, Oktyabr, we supported this idea 100 percent," said Nick Hluszko, general director of КАRО. "We are grateful to them for what they are doing in society: We do believe that this is a very important step for our culture and we are glad to be part of it."

Hluszko said KARO and partners plan to launch the same programme in other Russian cities.

Still a long way from inclusion

Bozhovich explained that their main objective is inclusion, to create a friendly atmosphere where everyone is comfortable; both people with autism and those who are neuro-typical. “That is why the screenings at Oktyabr are open to everyone. But for now only children with autism and their parents come to the theatre.”

"We will see real inclusion when other (neuro-typical) people also start coming to the theatre," said Bozhovich. "At least now they have the opportunity. This is not the 'solely for people with autism' event that we used to organize earlier."

Opportunities for people with mental handicaps, including autism, are appearing in Russia in various places, but society in general is still intolerant towards people with autism.

The only progress is represented by the fact that some movie theatres, museums and other platforms are ready to join the "Autism, a Friendly Environment" programme and provide comfortable conditions for moviegoers, including those with autism.

"Very slowly, but we are moving ahead," said Bozhovich.

What is autism?

- Autism is a disease related to the underdevelopment of the brain and manifests itself in difficulties communicating (people with autism can hardly make contact with the outside world), speech defects and drastic reactions to changes in routines;

- Disorders of the autism spectrum (various forms of autism) are diagnosed in early childhood;

- According to the World Health Organization, one in 160 children around the world suffers from autism and the percentage is growing annually. For example, in the U.S. 30 percent more children suffer from autism in 2016 than they did in 2012;

- In Russia there are no official statistics on people with autism. Judging by indicators in other countries, at least 200,000 people suffer from autism in Russia.

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