Teenager with Tourette Syndrome Says She Was Asked to Leave Theater Before Start of Avengers
Emily Womack says a manager at an Oklahoma AMC pressured her to leave before the start of the movie after people complained about her tics
When 15-year-old Emily Womack visited her local AMC theater to finally catch Avengers: Endgame on opening night, she never imagined she would leave before the action even began.
Emily has Tourette syndrome, a neurodevelopment disorder that causes uncontrolled repetitive movements or vocal tics, and has coped all her life with the rude reactions she receives when out in public. For Emily, these tics typically come out as involuntary screams and movements in her arms and legs, or she’ll feel compelled to throw an object across the room.
But Emily does have a way to temporarily suppress her tics if she “releases” them repeatedly for a short period of time. Doing so will spare her enough time to hold them back — just long enough to watch a movie — and that’s what she did just after she and her family took their seats at the AMC theater near their home in Dray, Oklahoma, last Thursday.
Though they arrived 45 minutes before the movie’s start to give Emily enough time to let out her tics, the family was approached by a manager and asked to step outside.
“He told me that nine people complained about Emily making noises, and I explained to him that that’s not a problem, that she won’t be doing it during the movie,” Emily’s mother Tina, 47, tells to PEOPLE. “He said there were so many complaints that it would be best if we left, and that he can’t tell me to leave, but that’s what would be best.”
The stress of the situation caused Emily’s tics to worsen, Tina explains, and at that point, the family felt it would be impossible to sit through the movie without disruption.
“There was no way she was going to be able to suppress it,” she recalls. “Yeah, being asked to leave? It upset her. She felt judged, but she also felt like she was harming people or ruining their experience, which is what kills me.”
For their trouble, the family was given movie passes and coupons for popcorn and soda. The theater later refunded the family for the price of their Avengers tickets and invited Emily to her own private screening of the movie.
Emily declined the private showing and the family instead bought tickets for ascreening at a drive-in theater this Thursday night. But because so many days had passed from opening night, Emily, unfortunately, had the ending of the movie spoiled for her.
In a statement, AMC tells PEOPLE that they strive to ensure patrons “can enjoy the moviegoing experience,” but they do not “permit disruptive noises during the movie.”
“In this case, the theater team attempted to resolve this situation without anyone having to leave the movie,” an AMC spokesperson said. “A theater manager, in response to multiple noise complaints during the trailers before Avengers: Endgame, verified the disruptive noise and discussed the situation with the family, explaining that disruptions are not permitted during the movie.”
“The family was offered options in an attempt to resolve the issue, including the opportunity to see the movie at a less crowded showtime, but in no way did AMC ‘kick out’ the guest or family, nor was anyone made to leave,” their statement continued. “The family initially chose to stay in the movie.”
The AMC spokesperson added: “Shortly after the movie started, the family chose to leave. Wanting to make sure everyone feels welcome at the theatre, the manager offered multiple passes, and coupons for popcorn and soda for a return visit. We’ve also reached out to the family to discuss other options for them to come back and see the movie.”
After the incident, Emily posted a video to the Tourette Association of America’s Facebook page. Her caption included a plea for companies to participate in training that would help them understand the condition and how to best handle situations with empathy.
“I’ve constantly been looked at, people have said things to me, I’ve been called several names by adults even, mostly adults even actually,” Emily tells PEOPLE. “I feel it’s important that people understand what’s happening, that I’m not meaning to be a nuisance or harmful to anyone else.”
“It’s always affected me emotionally,” she continues. “I’ve gotten better over the years, but I know in the beginning I spent many nights crying because I didn’t understand why people didn’t accept me. But now I get they just don’t know what’s happening. They don’t understand that I can’t control what I’m doing.”
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Emily’s emotional video has since received over 22,000 views, and many parents of children who have Tourette’s echoed the plea of compassion from strangers and businesses.
While Tourette’s was once thought to be rare, it’s estimated that one out of every 160 children between the ages of 5 to 17 in the United States has the disorder, according to the Tourette Association of America.
“The request to leave created an environment where Emily and her family felt they were unwelcome as a result of her disability — a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Amanda Talty, Tourette Association of America President and CEO tells PEOPLE. “Offering movie passes and popcorn will not erase the embarrassment and shame one feels in situations like this. Sadly, this is a story we in the Tourette Syndrome community know all too well and this moment will stay with Emily for the rest of her life.”
Emily hopes that by sharing what happened to her at the theater, many of the hundreds of thousands of people who have the condition might have more positive experiences while out in public.
“I think it’s important that we let businesses and people know what is happening, so they’re educated,” Emily says, “and they can think about it first before judging too quickly.”