When are laughs too loud for a movie?

Matt Brown, a 19-year-old with Angelman syndrome, has his photo taken Monday with his mother, Susan, left, and brother Jeff, 11, and, out of frame, his father, Ed, and brother Neil, 15.

Pink Panther is a comedy, and Matt Brown laughed. A lot. Then he and his mother were asked to leave.

By NICOLE JOHNSON

Published February 28, 2006

OLDSMAR – Matt Brown loved Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore..

He saw Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas six times.
And he laughed almost all the way through The Pink Panther – until a manager at the AMC Woodlands 20 theaters told him to leave Sunday’s show. Brown, 19, has Angelman syndrome, a neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to speak and maintain balance. Also known as the “happy puppet” syndrome, the disorder affects mental development and can prompt excessive laughter and seizures.
An AMC spokeswoman said several patrons complained about Brown’s outbursts. His mother was outraged.
“Here’s a child that was laughing at a comedy,” Susan Brown said Monday. “His way of expressing delight and joy at this movie was laughing, but because his communication technique got in the way of someone else’s space, he had to leave.” Brown, 46, lives in Tarpon Springs with her husband, Ed, 47, and their three sons. Matt, the eldest, functions at the level of a 2-year-old and uses a wheelchair to get around. The family goes to the movies about once every other month, Brown said. They’ve been to the Woodlands theaters several times, she said.

This is the first time Matt has been kicked out. On Sunday, Susan Brown took Matt and Jeff, 11, to see the 5:25 p.m. show of The Pink Panther . Ed and the couple’s 15-year-old son, Neil, went to see Final Destination 3 . Brown said her son laughed at all the funny parts during Pink Panther , a slapstick comedy starring Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau. He also laughed at some parts that others didn’t find so funny, she said.

“I remember thinking, “He’s laughing a lot,”‘ she said. “But then I thought, “It’s a children’s movie. It’s rated PG,’ so I wasn’t worried about it.” About an hour into the film, Susan Brown noticed a moviegoer leave the theater and return. Seconds later, a manager approached and asked her to step outside. “I said no, because I couldn’t leave my son unattended,” she said. Susan and Matt Brown were seated in the handicapped-designated section in the theater. She had taken Matt out of his wheelchair and seated him in a movie seat. The theater manager walked away and stood in the aisle for a few seconds, Brown said. He then walked back over to the mother and son and told them they had to leave.

Once in the hallway, Brown said two other theater staff people approached her and offered to refund their tickets. She refused. “That (the ticket) wasn’t the point,” said Brown, a stay-at-home mom. “Nobody apologized. Nobody looked at Matt in the eye. It was like he didn’t exist.” About 20 minutes later, Brown said she went in to get her younger son. Once back in the theater, she paused to give the audience a piece of her mind. “I guess it’s not appropriate to laugh at a children’s comedy and if you have a disability you don’t need to laugh too loud,” she told the crowd. “Have a nice evening.”

According to a statement issued by AMC spokeswoman Melanie Bell, “AMC Theatres has great respect for our guests with special needs and we work very hard to provide everyone the opportunity to attend our theatres comfortably. “In this particular instance, several members of the theater audience complained that the guest’s outbursts were disruptive,” the company said. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires places like shopping malls and movie theaters to weigh the rights of nondisabled patrons with the rights of the disabled. Establishments must alter their rules, within reason, if it means being more accommodating to a disabled person. “There’s always a fine line when you talk about disability and behavior and how it affects someone’s rights,” said Mary-Lee Kimber, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a California nonprofit group. “If it’s aggressive or violent or threatens others, even if it is based on disabilities, the courts generally don’t allow it. But when it comes to laughter, which can be disruptive, but not violent, it’s a little more gray.”

Martha Estes of Tampa was surprised to hear that someone with Angelman syndrome had been kicked out of a movie theater. Estes is a member of the Angelman Syndrome Foundation. “I know a lot of families that have children with Angelman’s who take their children to plays and church,” said Estes, whose 15-year-old son Evan has Angelman’s. “It’s a full-time thing. You do need to watch these children all the time, but they’re able to learn and they enjoy a lot of things.”

The Browns filed a complaint about the movie theater’s decision with the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday, Susan Brown said. “We felt it was so unjust, and it might happen to some other family and some other family who might not feel like they’re strong enough to have the voice to say it isn’t right,” she said. “Some people never have to go through an unexpected thing in life like having a child with a disability, so they don’t understand thinking about someone other than themselves.” When Matt was 6 months old, his parents realized he wasn’t rolling over or maintaining a sitting position. They went to the pediatrician and after several doctor visits Matt was diagnosed with Angelman syndrome. He was 1 year old.

Now he attends Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Student Education Center, a school for the disabled in Clearwater. He needs help with everything from getting dressed to getting around the house. There are lots of things Matt can’t do, like going to Universal Studios and camping. But he’s always enjoyed the movies. And Sunday’s experience at AMC Woodlands Square won’t change that, Susan Brown said.

“We won’t change our lives,” she said. “We’ll keep going to the movies, but we won’t go there, obviously.”

— Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnson@sptimes.com or 727 445-4162.

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