N.J. theater manager was ‘ignorant’ in episode involving autistic boy

August 10, 2023 7:12 am

A woman claims a Hazlet theater manager called the police when she brought her autistic son into the women's room with her. (Getty Images)

As the parent of a special needs child, you become accustomed to well-meaning people not getting it.

“He’s going to be just fiiiiiine,” a friend says when he is diagnosed as a toddler.

You know, in your times of anxiety, you won’t be calling that person to listen. They’re well-intentioned but need to believe all is right with the world.

“All kids do that,” your cousin says when you’re trying to figure out if the questionable behavior is something you can discipline as if your child is not on the autism spectrum.

These are the kinds of situations that resonate with most parents of special needs children. They’re not experts. They learn on the fly, day by day. It’s become their life. They have a beloved child and they want that child to fulfill his or her potential. So often there’s nowhere to turn to figure out what that even means or requires.

I know of what I speak. I am an aunt to a niece and nephew on the spectrum and have watched my siblings navigate this terrain for nearly two decades.

So you can imagine the choke that rose to the top of my throat when I saw that a mother, Christine Gallinaro, and her teen autistic son were asked to leave a movie theater in Hazlet because she took him into the women’s room. None of the occupants of that restroom were fazed, the woman says. They understood the implicit dilemma — he cannot go into a men’s room alone.

But not the manager. No, she directed her assistant manager to call the police.

Here’s what I’ve gathered from the 45-page lawsuit Gallinaro filed against the manager, the assistant manager, Cinemark Hazlet 12, and its corporate owner. There are no family restrooms there. Gallinaro took her son into the women’s room, and the manager yelled, “He shouldn’t be in here,” and that a “grown” man should not be in the women’s restroom, according to the lawsuit, then, she exclaimed, “This is not a transgender bathroom.”

You know I could go off for a whole column on the latter and how this is disturbing fallout from America’s lurid culture wars wrought by the GOP. Major props, by the way, to the assistant manager who obeyed his supervisor’s directive to call the police but clearly didn’t want to be aligned with her biased worldview.

However, I’m going to keep my focus on the former misguided statement by the manager. The teen is described as having “severe speech delays.” My gosh. Is it asking too much that a mother is allowed to bring her special needs kid for a change of scenery in a nice, air-conditioned theater and not be at the center of an incident?

Have you ever spent time with an autistic child? I mean, real time?

If not, let me help you understand. They can be repetitive. That’s actually such an understatement that parents of special needs kids are probably laughing out loud to the point of tears as they read it. There is so much processing in the brains of these precious humans that they don’t know how to convey. It can be frustrating for them to watch the rest of us communicate so freely while they try and try.

Meanwhile, over time, support systems for these families can drop off. Friends often don’t know what to say or how to support families wrestling with such vital issues. My 86-year-old mother counts this among the things that keep her up at night — what is going to happen to her two autistic grandchildren when all the adults in their lives die? I’m not going to speak for my siblings here, but I’m pretty sure this conversation could put them in a fetal position in short order.

They are not alone. According to the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities, the national autism spectrum disorders rate is one in 54 births, but in New Jersey, it is one in 32.

In a situation like Gallinaro’s, I can envision one parent giving another parent a break for a bit. It’s a movie, so it’s a win-win because the boy is delighted.

Now? According to the lawsuit, he is “irretrievably traumatized,” and the incident has “caused him to experience major behavioral changes” like frequently apologizing, insisting his mother accompany him to the bathroom even while at home, and disrupted sleep. Plus, he won’t return to the theater, one of his “favorite places” prior to this incident.

This is major.

I’m not a big fan of some aspects of our litigious society, but I would love to see this corporation make meaningful changes to its training procedures as a result of this manager’s ignorant actions. As we head back to the movies still reeling from a global pandemic, it would behoove them to do better by their patrons in all their diversity.

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Nancy Colasurdo
Nancy Colasurdo

Nancy Colasurdo is an award-winning journalist, author, and professional coach. A former Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan, she has won writing awards from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the NJSIAA. In 2019 she was selected to be part of 50 Women Who Can Change the World of Journalism through the nonprofit Take the Lead.