Millions of young people love Disney movies, but few appreciate them quite like Owen Suskind. He has watched every Disney film umpteen times and can recite the entire dialogue from each without error. For Owen, who is autistic, Disney viewing is not merely a hobby; it’s a therapy.
Animated films like “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and “The Jungle Book” have served as a bridge for Owen to the world, enabling him to get in touch with himself, and interact with other people.
In “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” Owen’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Ron Suskind, has chronicled his son’s unique journey from a diagnosis of regressive autism at age three (when a child who seems to be developing normally suddenly stops communicating and reaching milestones) to his life today as a communicative and semi-independent 23-year-old young man.
Suskind lays bare the specific ups and downs his family has faced over the years, and makes a case for affinity therapies. While not all autistic children are crazy about Disney, many of them have other passions, and those passions can help them access critical social and emotional skills.
“There are many natural advantages to Disney, because we as humans have always made sense of our selves through fable and myth, but there are advantages to other affinities, as well,” Suskind tells The Times of Israel. “We’ve met autistic kids who have a passion for Japanese anime or Thomas the Tank Engine. Many autistic individuals have a fascination with maps. Maps help us place ourselves in the world. Places have stories. Maps can be imaginary and we can map emotions.”
Suskind, 54, suggests parents “dive in after their kids, like in a lake,” when an affinity become apparent. “They need to not try to limit the obsession and to give themselves permission to get down in there with the kids and just enjoy it.”
If the parents go with the flow of their autistic child’s extreme passion, the child will let them in deeper and deeper, he says.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based author gives this advice now, but when Owen first started showing an obsession for Disney movies, he and his wife Cornelia Kennedy Suskind did not know quite what to make of it.
“In the year since his diagnosis, Owen’s only activity with his brother, Walt, is something they did before the autism struck: watching Disney movies. ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin’ — it was a boom time for Disney — and also the old classics: ‘Dumbo,’ ‘Fantasia,’ ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Bambi,’” Suskind wrote last March in a magazine piece for The New York Times.
“…Then Walt slips out to play with friends, and Owen keeps watching. Movie after movie. Certain parts he rewinds and rewatches. Lots of rewinding. But he seems content, focused.”
Then, one day a year after Owen’s diagnosis, Suskind and his wife heard him uttering “Juicervose, juicervose.” They saw that “The Little Mermaid” was playing on the VCR — specifically the part where Ursula the sea witch, sings the song of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” to the selfish mermaid, Ariel. This happens before Ursula turns Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.
Go ahead — make your choice!
I’m a very busy woman, and I haven’t got all day.
It won’t cost much, just your voice!
As Owen kept rewinding back to this bit, the parents realized that their son, who had not spoken in a year, was not talking about juice. He was repeating the words of the song: Just your voice.
“A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy,” Suskind writes.
At first, experts warned that this could just be echolalia, when people with disabilities simply repeat (or echo) the last word or two of a sentence without really understanding their meaning. But over time, it became apparent to Suskind and his wife that the world of Disney was helping their son understand the real world.
In September 1997, the couple’s older son, the tough, independent Walter, became a bit weepy at his 9th birthday party. After seeing his brother crying, six-year-old Owen followed his parents in to the kitchen, looked at them and suddenly said, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”
“It’s as if a thunderbolt just passed through the kitchen. A full sentence, and not just an ‘I want this’ or ‘Give me that.’ No, a complex sentence, the likes of which he’d not uttered in four years. Actually, ever,” Suskind writes.
From that point forward, Suskind and his wife dove head first in to Disney with their son, utilizing the songs and dialogue from the animated films to draw him out of his autistic shell. They shared their insights (including their discovery that Owen had taught himself to read by reading the scrolling movie credits, and that he could produce drawings of Disney characters to rival those done by the professional animators) with the various doctors, therapists and educators who worked with Owen, and they, too, incorporated this intense affinity in to their work with the boy.
Now, with Owen’s graduation in June from the specialized Riverview School in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he has had to give up his role of leader of the school’s Disney Club, which he founded.
“All of the kids came into the club with an affinity for Disney, but none of them grew up in homes where it was supported as it was in Owen’s case,” the father explains. “The club just flipped a switch for these kids and they are catching up to Owen. All the parents have said that their kids are just flowering thanks to the Disney Club.”
As Owen moves with his girlfriend of two years (“Beauty and the Beast” helped him there) into a supported independent living community in Cape Cod and gets settled in to his new adult life (he will work in a store and continue to create his vivid, impressionistic Disney paintings), his father reflects on the decision to bring “Life, Animated” to light.
Suskind, the author of five other acclaimed books, had not thought of writing a book about his family’s experience with autism and Disney therapy during Owen’s first two decades. It was Owen’s own acceptance of himself at age 19 that prompted Suskind to take on the project.
“He said, ‘I’m all right. I don’t belong in the broken toy department. I want people to know who I am,’” Suskind recounts. “So Cornelia and I put everything on hold for two years and wrote this book in the hopes of helping other families with autistic children.”
The couple found the writing process cathartic.
“It was intense to float back over and look down on our lives, to live all those emotions again. It was quite a journey,” he shares.
Suskind says he has learned important life lessons from his autistic son, who has embraced Jewish ritual and spirituality, and impressed at his bar mitzvah with a d’var Torah on the injunction to not place a stumbling block in front of the blind.
“He brought his Disney intensity to his bar mitzvah. He really took to the fables and narratives of the Hebrew bible,” the father recalls.
“Kids like Owen are spiritual. He’s not embarrassed to talk to God. He doesn’t see divisions between the terrestrial and the Divine presence. He has taught us the might of spirituality.”
Every Disney movie has a message or a moral, and Suskind says Owen has taught him and his wife an important lesson against their will.
“We have a broader idea of what a worthwhile life is now.”