NEW YORK — In his new book, "Life, Animated," Ron Suskind tells the remarkable story of how Disney movies unlocked his autistic son's emotions.
Owen Suskind was a typical toddler until age 3, when his developing language and social skills vanished. He was diagnosed with regressive autism.
Gradually Owen became fascinated by Disney movies, watching and re-watching them endlessly. One day, at his brother Walter's 9th birthday party, Walter became a bit teary. "Walter doesn't want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan," said Owen. Comparing his brother to Disney characters was the most sophisticated thing Owen, then 6, had uttered in years.
Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, began to encourage Owen's Disney passion. Owen, now 23, used Disney characters and stories to relate to real-world situations. He recovered his lost language. And by finding other autistic kids with Disney affinities, his social isolation eased. The Suskinds have been contacted by researchers from around the world, and they believe their story offers hope.
Mary Andrianopoulos, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's School of Public Health, has a federal grant to improve communication skills in autistic children. She's been following the Suskinds' story and says their approach makes sense: "to figure out what attracts a child and build on that child's strengths." She cautions that it's not as simple as "just putting a child in front of a Disney video and that's the treatment," but says if a child "is learning communication skills and how to express certain feelings through the characters, and has a repertoire of language learned from these movies," then those strengths can be channeled into functional skills "so they can get jobs, have friends, live independently."