Darkness in a Theater

Update: Emily wrote this post in January of 2014 and has a follow-up piece she wrote in April of 2014. You’ll want to be sure to read “Love to the Max” to see how Emily’s church and community reached out to Max!

Finding light in a dark theater - specialneedsparenting.net

We came to see a movie. But I never imagined that we would become the entertainment.

Patty and I found our pre-assigned seats and sunk into the plush leather, with Max sandwiched between us. Despite the exorbitant ticket price, this posh new cinema was completely full. I studied those around us searching for a smile, which is the gold star sticker of acceptance. But no one seemed to notice Max. As we sat waiting for the film I marveled that we could be part of this audience, sitting like everyone else enjoying Christmas with their families. We became something bigger than just us; we were a school of fish moving together in unity, gliding through the deep blue. Max’s eyes darted around the room, his pupils like black pools as the lights dimmed.

“Don’t worry if Max gets anxious in the beginning of the movie,” I whispered to my step-mom Patty. “He needs a few minutes to adjust, and then he loves it.” I felt a little rush of pride come over me, with a desperate hope that it would actually work. Sitting at the movies is one of our hard-earned victories. But after 23 years, I know that life with autism is predictably unpredictable. I clutched my bag under my arm, with Max’s teddy bear peeking out of the top just like the Hollywood starlets carry their Chihuahuas.

The first preview started with eardrum-breaking volume. “I want to go home!” Max shrieked as he folded over his ears. I leaned in quickly, knowing the drill. “It’s ok Max. Our movie will start in a minute. This will stop.” Just as Max was about to completely unravel, our great green friend appeared like an angel on the screen, but with the potential for warts. It was Kermit, as big as a house. Max’s face relaxed, “The Muppet movie!” Max cried out in a jubilant voice that carried unfortunately well with the fine acoustics of the theater. “And Fozzy Bear!” Max laughed nearly slapping his knee. It was apparent that, despite their best efforts, these felt puppets were not bringing joy to the rest of the audience. I leaned into Max and pointed to our movie theater rules. “Whisper voice,” I reminded him.

Finally our feature started, and once again the change startled Max. “I want to go home!” His voice cracked across the silent theater.

But he was quickly drowned out.

“Are you going to make him be quiet?” The older woman next to Patty exploded with aggravation.

Patty leaned toward her and explained, “He is autistic and…”

“I know he is,” the woman shot back as she lunged forward and pounded on her chest. “But why should the rest of us have to suffer.”

“If you don’t make him be quiet,” her husband shouted, “I’m calling the manager!”

I desperately needed an oxygen mask to drop from the ceiling. I couldn’t breath. There in 3D surround sound, my own horror movie began to play.

I threw my hand up toward them in a stop motion. It works for policemen. And I desperately, achingly, wanted it to stop. “Ok. Ok,” I said. “Just give us a minute.” It takes both great finesse and a forklift for Max to leave quickly. My heart leapt into my throat as if it were trying to make an escape before the rest of us. At another time I might have defended our right to be there, but I could hear a strange rumbling of underground thunder. After a minute of dust-flinging commotion, Max stood up beside me, with Patty soon to follow.

And the thunder grew louder.

It was applause for our exit. It was the sound of an angry mob chasing us away with their jeers and taunts.

“And don’t come back,” I heard as we slowly made our way down the stairs in the dark.

I tried to block Max from the view of the crowd, my every step labored, detached, brittle. I wanted to throw my arms around Max to remind him, and everyone else, of just how deeply he is loved. But I couldn’t make my arms work. As we neared the exit, passing center stage, I heard a voice from the back of the theater. It was a man shouting over the thunder of the crowd like a crack of lightening.

“He’s retarded.”

I lost all bearings. I even lost track of watching Max. I stopped and turned toward the sea of faces lit up by the screen behind me. They were colorless, floating, with their little fish eyes watching our every move. The movie must have been showing on top of my silhouette. I don’t know if they could see my hand clutching my heart, my chest heaving for a breath. I tried to squeak something out, but a Boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my throat. I had to find some kind of answer to such cruelty, some memorable response to wash this away.

“There is a lesson here,” I began as I forced my tiny voice forward fearing the movie sound track would suddenly drown me out. “A lesson that is so much more important than anything you will learn from this movie.”

I turned back toward the exit, my arms and legs stiff like metal rods. But just as we were about to walk out, the voice from the back of the room struck again.

“Merry Christmas!” he called to us sarcastically. It was a kick in the back on our way out the door, a final deathblow meant for purely perverse entertainment.

I looked back up at the crowd once more. The little girl in me wanted to storm up those stairs and throw over the monopoly board. Fortunately the grown-up part of me was numb. Plus, I knew I was outnumbered. Just minutes ago, I was a card-carrying member of this audience. And sadly, despite everything that would speak to the contrary, despite my desperate desire for it to be untrue, I knew I still was. I shuddered at the truth of it, at the vile potential of every human heart. Including my own. And then came the strangest sense of clarity, the tiniest bit of perfect peace.


It was a nudge of truth from the Holy Spirit. Even as I share this story with you days later, I feel it. Christmas…when God sent his only Son into the angry lynch mob of the world that groans with self-serving demands and cruelty and hate, to bring us light in our darkness. To bring us healing for our utterly disabled souls. To save us from ourselves – something we cannot do. I couldn’t wait to get my son out of there. But Christmas…Christmas is when God, in his lavish love for us, chose to send His only Son right into this carnage. Christmas is God’s answer to the evil in every human heart.

We stood just a step from the theater exit, my chance for the last word. With my hand still clutching my chest, I scraped up every shred of kindness I could pull together in my fragile splintered self, and breathed words of hope back to the audience, and to myself.

“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.

And the words spilled around us like a little pool of light.

“In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.”

John 1:4-5

Written by Emily Colson

35 thoughts on “Darkness in a Theater

  1. Pingback: Mom Pens Heartbreaking Blog Post About How Her Autistic Son Was Jeered Out of a Movie Theater | TheBlaze.com

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  13. Jennifer Bittner

    This has literally stolen my breath. I am in awe that human beings could have acted so horribly. I am not sure how I would have responded in such a situation. I am weeping for you, for Max, and for every other family who has experienced such cruelty.
    I also weep for my son, and try to do what I can to help make the world a safer place for him. For all of us.
    I saw the follow up news article, and think it is a wonderful idea. I hope Max and the other people atending enjoy their movie.

    1. Jaime Havard

      I am so very sorry that you were treated so cruelly. It was not just the people that taunted and applauded but those that KNEW it was wrong and remained quiet. They should all be ashamed.

    2. CHELSEA

      I am so glad that you shared your story and was then shared through a website that reaches millions of readers! Thank you! Though I am so incredibly sorry for your experience that day I thank you for telling it. My brother has epilepsy and it has been a struggle throughout his life with his day to day activities and simply being accepted. The first step to making people with disabilities hopeful of a “normal” future is to educate the masses. You are doing that by sharing your story.

      I hope the best for you two and your family.

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  20. Phil Shannon

    If you ever want to go to the movie again with Max, I volunteer to be your security guard. I will fight every last one of the rude people, I’ll kick them all out of the theater for you. Then you all can enjoy the movie.

  21. Mike

    I am truly sorry you had to endure this disgusting behaviour. Sometimes people like this in society make me hate them but then I quickly remember the beautiful people like you and your son who make this sometes very dark world a brighter one.

  22. Tenisha

    You handled that situation better then I would have, it’s truley amazing how cruel people can be. They don’t consider other peoples feelings at all.

  23. Patricia

    I never like to comment on anything I see online, nor Facebook nor Instagram and surely not blogs but when I read this story I was in tears. I hurt so much for Max and his mother. The cruelty that posses mankind just makes me so sad! I would have never ever allowed something like that to happen if I were sitting in the audience. I may only be 1 person against the audience but as a human being with a heart I would have gotten myself up and walked right out with Max and his mother! I will pray for Max and for all who are treated differently because they are “different” from what society thinks people should be. Max is a special soul and only special Mothers get to raise kids like Max! Bravo to you and bravo to those women and men that raise kids with Autism and fight for normalcy.

  24. Shannon Harrop

    I don’t know how I would have reacted had I been in that audience, and I feel sad knowing I probably would have remained silent. You are definitely right, there is a lesson to learn in this, and the fact that this occurred on Christmas makes the point even clearer. This story hit me hard, I wonder what would have happened if one silent voice had spoken up in support of you and your family, Little victories are important, and even more so because they are sought after in a state that makes us feel most vulnerable. I admire your strength to not only just go to the theatre in the first place, but to stand tall, and not as you said flip the Monopoly board. This really makes me take a second look at myself, and of my need to have patience, love, and really stand up in support of others when they deserve it, and need it..

  25. Erin Sellars

    I am so terribly sorry about what happened to you and Max at the theater. People can be incredibly cruel and heartless. Was the movie THAT important that they felt the need to just spew such hateful and nasty things? Especially considering that it was the biggest heartfelt holiday in the entire world….Christmas!! I have a 26 year old sister who has autism and I congratulate you for being a bigger person than I would have been. I have lost friends and even some family members defending my sister and the snide remarks that have been said about her for years. I think my sister Morgan is awesome and I would never change a single thing about her. She loves movies and music and I can understand your frustration. Keep doing the great work that you do!! Max has a great team in his corner and that’s all that really matters. =)

    All the best from Richmond, VA

  26. Carrie

    I can relate to your pain. I have a 15 year old son with autism and I can’t believe how ignorant people can be. Next time someone is staring at my son with disgust, I will think of you and Max and remember we are not alone. I will remember that some where out there is another mom of a son with autism that would understand what we’re going through. Instead of bowing my head and rushing off with my son in tow, I will stop, smile and loud and clear, tell them to have a lovely day!

  27. DK

    That is horrifying for you to endure such a terrible day. Chunky’s in Nashua, and Pelham NH, and Haverhill MA shows sensory friendly movies.The next one is Rio 2 in April. They keep the lights on, the sound is lowered, and dancing, shouting, singing and walking around the theater is welcome. I hope your next experience is better than that freak show you experienced on Christmas day.

  28. Miranda

    I’m so sorry this happened to Max, Patty and you. I wish I had been there to stand up for you, but I’ll be sure to stand up for anyone else who needs me another time. Thank you for sharing.

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