How Disney transformed the life of a boy with autism


Photo of Owen with Goofy, courtesy Ron Suskind and Day 6.

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First aired on Day 6 (5/4/2014)


It's common for kids on the autism spectrum to develop what are known as affinities -- things they focus on to the point of obsession. Maps, particular toys, transit schedules, video games, or, in the case of Owen Suskind, all things Disney.

Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism at age three. His parents, Ron Suskind and Cornelia Kennedy Suskind, watched helplessly as their talkative and energetic son disengaged with the world around him, choosing instead to immerse himself in the lives of Aladdin, Ariel, Cinderella and Peter Pan. But instead of these movies further isolating Owen, Ron, Cornelia, and their older son, Walt, fought to understand and engage in his affinity. Ultimately, Disney films, songs and characters unlocked Owen's world. Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, shares his family's remarkable story in a new book, Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism.

Owen began to have issues as a two-year-old, just after the family moved to Washington, D.C. He stopped sleeping, he stopped eating and eventually stopped speaking. Right around this time, the family sat down to watch The Little Mermaid and Owen seemingly fixated on a song in the film that was about Ariel, the titular mermaid, losing her voice, something that had just happened to Owen. "We realized when we were watching the movie, he kept wanting to replay that particular scene," Cornelia said in a recent interview on Day 6. It was a scene that focused on Ariel losing her voice, something that had just happened to Owen. "It was the first moment of connection that we felt with Owen that he was understanding everything and that he was trying to tell us what was going on inside of him," Cornelia said.

Another pivotal moment was when Owen was six. It was his older brother Walt's birthday and Walt was upset about turning another year older. Owen uttered his first-ever complete sentence to his parents, in which he compared his brother to Peter Pan, the Disney character who never wants to grow up. "All of sudden, it was like a whole window was opened up to us," Ron said. That's when inspiration struck and the Suskinds decided to use Disney dialogue, toys and characters voices to communicate with Owen. They re-enacted scenes with him almost daily and chose important moments from Disney films to discuss what was going on in Owen's life with him. They turned to Iago from Aladdin to discuss Owen's loneliness and to The Sword in the Stone to talk about his troubles at school. "It gave us a glimmer of hope at that point, that we could work at something and we could reach him in a new way," Cornelia said.

It was -- and still is -- a long, complicated journey. Owen is now 20 and he still uses Disney to connect with the world around him. He even started a Disney club at school for people with autism, just like him, and it has grown to more than 30 members. "More and more we begin to realize he's like method-living through these lines and finding his emotional voice and, in a way, shaping his emotional life, through these characters," Ron said.

Check out Owen's drawings of Disney characters below: