SOUTH PORTLAND — Watching a movie at a commercial theater is usually a lesson in restraint.

As the sound system thunders and images splash across a giant screen, patrons are expected to sit quietly, no feet on the reclining seats. Excessive talking or popcorn rattling can trigger shushing or even worse.

For children with autism, the whole moviegoing experience can be too much to tolerate. But it wasn’t for those who attended a special showing Saturday morning of “The Lego Movie” at Cinemagic Grand at Clarks Pond. The children could talk as loudly as they wanted and even dance in the aisles if they saw fit.

“They can move around and sing along,” said David Headley, manager of the South Portland theater.

The theater is one of a growing number of movie houses that offer special showings for children with autism and other sensory difficulties, or those who just can’t sit still and be quiet when the action gets exciting. Theaters in Auburn and Farmington also have held special showings.

Other businesses are also making changes to accommodate people with sensory issues. For the past two Christmases, the Maine Mall has turned down its lights and sound for sensory friendly sessions with Santa Claus.

About a half-dozen families attended Saturday’s showing of the current No. 1 box office hit. The lights were turned up and the sound turned down a little bit more than at usual showings. It was the second special sensory-friendly showing offered at the Cinemagic Grand at Clarks Pond, which will hold similar showings at 10 a.m. every third Saturday of the month.

“Children with autism make noises. They can’t always sit in their seats. They may have to pace or eat constantly,” said Lynda Mazzola, founder of the Maine Autism Society and a speech and language pathologist.

Mazzola said special showings allow autistic children and their families a chance to enjoy the moviegoing experience in a setting where everyone is tolerant of talking and movement.

Because autistic children process sensory information differently, they can easily become overloaded, Mazzola said. It helps if they can self-regulate the experience, watch a few minutes, leave and then come back for more. She said it may take awhile before an autistic child can tolerate an entire movie.

“I work with some adults who are now able to go in and watch a whole movie in a regular theater and they really enjoy it,” Mazzola said.

Families at Saturday’s special showing said they appreciated the chance to watch a movie without having to worry about disturbing someone else.

“This is nice to have because it is hard to keep them sitting still and quiet,” said Sarah Taubner of Portland, who was accompanied by her husband, Justin Yindra, and her stepsons, Toby Yindra, 8, and Sebastian Yindra, 6.

Jenn Brooking of Cape Elizabeth brought her 7-year-old twins, Alex and Andy. This was Andy’s first movie in a movie theater.

“This is something we have been waiting for a long time. Sometimes it’s difficult to stay quiet when it’s exciting,” Brooking said.

Alexander Kang, 5, said he once watched a movie projected on the ceiling of a planetarium but had never visited a movie theater before.

His father, Peter Kang of Cape Elizabeth, said his son has sensory difficulties that make it hard for him to be around loud noises.

Erin and Aaron Geyer drove an hour from Parsonsfield to see the movie with their son, Ethan, 6. Geyer said she called the movie theater at one point to suggest a special showing for children like Ethan who are autistic or have other sensory issues and was delighted to find out about the Cinemagic series.

“We try to expose Ethan to as much as we can,” Erin Geyer said.

The Geyers said the special showing made the moviegoing experience more comfortable for them.

“We will be with people who understand and accept,” Aaron Geyer said.

Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]