Disney movies like Peter Pan proved the only way for a Pulitizer Prize winning author to reach his autistic son. The boy, child of political journalist Ron Suskind, began withdrawing into his own impenetrable world when he was around the age of three. But as Suskind recounts in his moving new memoir Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, his son Owen came out of his shell only through endless repeat viewings of Peter Pan and other Disney movies.
Owen became obsessed with Disney movies and eventually developed an ability to communicate by comparing events in life to things he had seen happen in the various Disney cartoons he voraciously consumed.
When Owen was six years old he was at the ninth birthday party of his older brother, Walter, when he uttered what Suskind said was the most coherent sentence the boy had ever spoken.
“Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan,” Owen said. The Suskinds then gradually began to realize that they could reach into Owen’s otherwise locked consciousness by using events from the Disney classics as points of reference.
Owen is now 23 years old, and has even found the social connections so difficult to obtain for the autistic by meeting other autistic people who also share his taste for Disney movies.
“We understand the distaste people have for the power of Disney and the brainwashing,” Suskind said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There were times when I said, ‘If I watch Peter Pan one more time, I’m going to take a sword and plunge it into my chest.’ But over time we began to see it was the only way to connect with our child.”
Suskind’s book is published by a Disney subsidiary, but he made clear that the book is not meant to be Disney propaganda. The fact is, Disney was the only company that could publish the book without creating a legal nightmare.
“When I talked to my agent, he said, ‘Every word your child speaks is licensed by a multinational company,'” Suskind recalled. “We’d have to pay licensing fees for every lyric or line of dialogue. I had to go to Disney.”
Suskind describes Owen as developing normally until three years old, then suddenly losing his communication skills and ability to relate to the world — a frightening condition known as “regressive autism.”
But experts on autism say that such a sudden onset of autism symptoms would be extraordinarily rare.
“The claim that many kids with autism develop typically for almost three years and then experience a near-complete loss of language, social skills, and motor ability—a claim I’ve read many times before—simply isn’t true,” said autism researcher Jennifer Richler.
Instead, Richler says that in most such cases, early signs of abnormal development were missed.
And Disney movies are not a magic route to reaching an autistic child, says another researcher, Mary Andrianopoulos. But Disney movies can indeed be useful, she says, if a child appears to be”learning communication skills and how to express certain feelings through the characters, and has a repertoire of language learned from these movies.”