AUBURN — Saturday morning was a blessing for about 100 Lewiston-Auburn-area families with autistic children.

They came to enjoy a free movie at Flagship Cinemas, thanks to sponsors John F. Murphy Homes Inc. and the Lewiston-Auburn Rotary Club.

The families were registered for the event by the Autism Society of Maine. They came to see “The Croods,” a prehistoric comedy adventure by Dreamworks Animation about a family experiencing a world of change.

For 3-year-old Noah Footer of Lewiston, it was his debut movie-theater experience and first taste of movie-theater popcorn.

“I think this is awesome,” Footer’s grandmother, Kathy Collins-Landry of Lewiston, said in the lobby while holding the wide-eyed, mildly autistic youngster.

The boy’s parents, Nathan and Jenna Footer, and Collins-Landry’s husband, Tom, were getting free bags of popcorn, water and soda for the family.

“It’s his first time,” Collins-Landry said. “He’s never been to any cinema, so this is really exciting. It should be exciting to see his facial expression when he goes in there.”

“This is a good experience for him,” Nathan Footer said. “I can’t wait for him to see it for the first time. It’s really cool that they’re doing this free thing for the kids.”

They didn’t know how Noah would react.

“Either he’s going to be glued to the screen or he’s going to be jumping up and down or throwing popcorn,” Jenna Footer said.

“We’ll hope for the best,” Nathan Footer said. “He does good, though.”

Heather Field of Lisbon brought her autistic daughter, Haley, 7, and the child’s grandmother, Darlene Field of Brunswick.

“It’s actually a relief to have a chance, because we don’t get to go to regular movies, ever,” said Heather Field, who suffers from Meniere’s Disease and is losing her hearing. She had Savanah, a service dog, with her.

“Even if we don’t actually get into the theater, it’s a relief to have people here actually understand,” she said.

The free movie experience is an opportunity to help reduce anxiety levels for families, said Cathy E. Dionne, director of Programs and Administration for the Autism Society of Maine.

“The families are just so grateful,” said Linda Chamberlain, a Rotary member and former Autism Society board member.

When the Rotary and Autism Society first offered the event seven or eight years ago, Dionne of Greene said 50 adults and children participated. For Saturday’s movie, she registered 145 adults and children.

Rob Truitt Jr. of Turner brought his two autistic sons to the show. Jesse Truitt, 11, is severely autistic and nonverbal. Jesse’s 14-year-old brother Rob “Bobby” Truitt III, has mild autism.

Their father said both boys have been to movie theaters before with other family members, but Bobby is more used to the experience than Jesse.

Jesse “seems to be OK and he seems to have a sense that he’s out in a place like this,” Rob Truitt said.

The younger boy placed the hood of his jacket over his head, then pressed his hands to his ears and gently rocked back and forth.

Rob Truitt Jr. said he was a bit worried that the movie’s sound might bother Jesse.

Dionne said sound shouldn’t be a problem because it would be lower than normal. And lights along the walls would be kept on so the theater wouldn’t be completely dark.

“Anything we can do to make it a little less stressful, we do,” she said.

Volunteers helped families get popcorn and drinks and ushered them to seats inside.

During the movie, Dionne said the children could get out of their seats and walk around.

“All those families in there understand when a child needs to get up and they’ve got to walk or pace,” Dionne said. “It’s just part of who they are.”

At 10 a.m., the movie began promptly without any previews. The autistic children seemingly got into it. Many got the visual humor and laughed aloud along with their parents and relatives.

Outside in the lobby, Darlene Field was still trying to get her granddaughter Haley interested in taking a seat. The girl was crawling on all fours, stuffed dogs held in each hand, heading for the entrance doors when Darlene acted like a red stoplight to get the youngster to reverse direction.

Heather Field said her daughter was frightened. She said the last time they tried taking Haley to a regular theater, sounds and echoes from the previews and the big screen itself scared her.

“It was not sensory-friendly, so we have not been able to go into an auditorium of any type in about three years,” she said.

It took a lot of peeking inside, and help from volunteer Kristopher Akerley of Lewiston, before Haley took a seat with her family.

That’s one reason the viewing was closed to the public.

“We know that it’s possibly the one time of the year that these families can do something together, you know, without fear of stares or glares or any of that,” said Christine Wilson of Lewiston, a volunteer and a Rotarian. “So they get to be a family.”

Wilson, growing teary-eyed, said, “There are things that you can do to feel good, but this stuff is just total feel-good.”

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