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Cornelia and Ron Suskind

How magic of animation broke autism’s silence

Owen Suskind (left) with his parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind.

Marie Noyale

Owen Suskind (left) with his parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind.

Owen Suskind was obsessed with Disney movies, committing most of the 50-film pantheon to memory. At first his parents, Cornelia and Ron Suskind, now of Cambridge, tried to break him of the habit. Eventually, they learned that Disney characters were the way to reach Owen, now 22, who was diagnosed with a regressive form of autism at age 2½ after losing the few words he had learned. Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written a new book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” about the family’s success using Disney to reach and teach their son.

Q. Why do you think it’s so important to let kids, particularly those with autism, pursue their passions, no matter how silly they seem?

Cornelia: If the joy that they feel pursuing that affinity is so obvious and strong, you’ve got to go with it. To the lay person it can sound like meaningless facts. [But] when a child presents with a talent, a passion, it needs to be respected.

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Q. Owen, now in a college-like program for young adults with autism, started a Disney Club to watch movies with his friends. What has that been like?

Cornelia: It was astounding to us how deeply these kids understood these characters.

Ron: They’re talking about the movie and we’re racing to keep up.

Q. Is Owen OK with having his story told?

Ron: He’s very enthusiastic. He’s like “I want people to know who I am and who people like me are.”

Q. You tell a story about how, on on your older son Walter’s 9th birthday, you realized that Owen was paying much more attention than you realized.

Ron: Walt gets a little emotional on his birthday, every year, but we don’t really spot it. Owen [then 6] has basically at this point not uttered anything more than a three-word sentence. As we clean up from the 9-year-old’s party, Owen looks intensely at the two of us and says “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” It was like a lightening bolt went through the kitchen.

Q. That made you realize how much Owen was learning from the Disney movies? How did you respond?

Ron: We ginned up the idea of trying to talk to him using one of his characters. I put the Iago [the parrot in the movie “Aladdin”] puppet on, crawl up to the bed, throw the bedspread over my head and say in Iago’s voice: “Owen, how does it feel to be you?” Owen turns to the puppet, like he’s bumping into an old friend, and says, “Not good, I have no friends. I can’t understand what people say, and I’m lonely.” That was our first real conversation.

Q. How did the movies help him to express himself?

Ron: [Owen told us] “The exaggeration of the faces helped me.” That’s how he started to get the language back. He needed the movies to be his translator.

Q. It’s got to be tough to parent this way, to watch “The Little Mermaid” 1,000 times.

Ron: You’ve got to be there with them. You may not be excited about the affinity, but that’s your problem not their problem. [Speak their language] and eventually, they’ll start speaking yours.

Q. Once you committed to Disney, to accepting his passion, what happened?

Ron: Part of the respect for the affinity is, once we said we’re just gonna love it like he does, he let us in deeper and deeper. Then he started to teach us. [He’d say] “These five characters are really the same, though they look different.”

Cornelia: [And I’d ask] “Well, how are they similar?” Then we started with descriptive adjectives, and then people we knew who might be like those characters and how he might feel about those characters.

Q. Do you think that what you did with Owen could help others on the autism spectrum too?

Cornelia: We do. Just watching these kids in Disney Club — they have created these friendships. Girlfriends and boyfriends have sprung up. I do think that other kids, whatever their passion, that it can be used as a portal to try to reach their emotional core, and to use it for learning.

Q. You tell a touching story about the most recent Disney Club meeting when they’re watching “Beauty and The Beast,” and your older son Walter helps lead them all in singing the Gaston song.

Cornelia: What 25-year-old is going to stand up and embrace these kids and sing this song and love this? It was just an amazing full circle. Because Walter was the one who brought Disney into our house.

Ron: And Owen is the one who turned it into a language, and now Walt is speaking Owen’s language to 35 kids who also speak Disney.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kweintraub.
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