Learning to Communicate with an Autistic Son: The Suskind Family Story

On April 21, 2014, the silent Full Frame Theater erupted with Disney-like animation, as Ron Suskind walked into the room. With expressions only possible in full Technicolor animation as he began talking about his experience of learning to communicate with his autistic son through the characters of Disney. For an hour and fifteen minutes the audience was transported through the animated lives of the Suskind family and their journey to connect with their son and brother, Owen.

The Suskind family’s story starts out like most; Ron was having great success in his career at the Wall Street Journal; at home he had a caring wife, Cornelia, and two young children, Walter and Owen. Their story begins like many other families, Walter learning his role as an older brother, and Owen a typical two-year-old. Like every Disney movie their story starts out happy and full of hope. However, around the age of three Owen begins to change right in front of the Ron and Cornelia’s eyes. At this point they hear the “A” word, autism, in regards to their son for the first time; Owen was diagnosed with “regressive autism.” Their son, as they knew him, seemed to vanish and they realize their life had been turned upside-down.

During his regression, Owen, no longer verbally communicating, retreats from his family similar to Simba from “The Lion King” who retreats after the loss of his father. Through this time Ron, Cornelia and Walter worked to cope with this change and help Owen. It is at this point, when Owen starts to make a deep connection with the characters from Disney movies as though they were his own Timon and Pumbaa. In November of 1994 Owen speaks up, not in a clear voice, but he murmurs something, “Juicervos.” This word soon became a triumphant resurgence of Owen, as he communicated to his family through the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid” that it was “just [his] voice” that was gone, not him. While no one can know for sure if this was a conscious, thought-out communication or just a repetition of a favorite phrase; young Owen communicated in a very clear way to his family.

The Suskind family finally saw moments where Owen would make clear connections to everyday life to through the eyes of Disney characters. One night Ron finally figured out how to communicate with Owen. As Owen was searching for his role in the world when a friend stopped by, Iago, the loud yet humorous sidekick of Jafar from the movie “Aladdin.” This was the first time since before his regression Ron and Owen had a conversation. It was because Ron sat down with him, not as a father, but rather as a character from one of Owen’s beloved Disney movies. For the first time Ron and Cornelia hear how their son is truly feeling. After falling behind at his school and being asked to leave, Owen describes the struggles of a hero, primarily loneliness. However, Owen doesn’t see himself as a hero, rather he describes that he is like a sidekick; while everyone else is living the life of heroes, he was being left behind.

While Owen may continue to struggle with being a “sidekick”, many admire him as a hero he is; someone who learned to reach those around him through animated characters. Ron ends the story about of family by taking his audience to the place Owen is now.

Owen is now the president of the “Disney Club”, a local club that allows him and other autistic adults to connect with each other through a common love of Disney. He is also an integral piece in the development of “Affinity Therapy”, or “Disney Therapy” as Ron sometimes calls it. Affinity Therapy is now being researched as a method of helping those with autism connect to the world through other non-conventional avenues. The Suskind family continues to be a part of the development of various therapies to treat autism.

This is just a small piece of a greater story. To read the whole inspiring story you can purchase Ron Suskind’s book “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.”