When Owen Suskind was just 3-years-old, his parents claim he “vanished.” Owen suddenly stopped talking and lost a number of the skills he had learned since birth. Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism and remained silent until the day his parents discovered his obsession with Disney. It was that obsession with Disney that gave this autistic boy his voice back.
At the beginning of the trailer for the documentary titled Life, Animated, you can see a home movie filmed by the autistic boy’s mother Cornelia Suskind in November 1993. In the home movie, Ron (her husband) is playing with their son in the garden of their old home.
“Owen, who are you?” His father questions. “I’m Peter Pan and you’re Captain Hook.” Owen responds.
It was shortly after that video was recorded that Owen “vanished” as his parents described it. According to The Guardian, Owen Suskind stopped talking at the age of three. He became very unhappy and slowly begun to lose all of his motor skills. His father described Owen as someone who was “weaving around” as if he were walking with his eyes closed. His parents were puzzled.
“Children don’t grow backwards.”
The first pediatrician Owens’ parents took him too was just as puzzled. It was not until he was referred to a specialist in January of 1994 that his parents learned he was autistic.
When his parents describe the first few months with Owen after he lost his voice, they describe it filled with confusion and fear. It was easily the worst time of their lives.
“Owen had so many alarming behaviors – although luckily he was never violent or aggressive. I feared that he would never speak, that we would be taking care of him for his entire life.”
The parents of the autistic boy never did figure out what it was that caused Owen Suskind to suddenly lose so many of his skills at the age of three. They, however, devoted themselves to finding therapy for their son instead of dwelling on what could have caused him to lose his voice.
Because Ron had a new position working for the Wall Street Journal, his wife – who was also a journalist – could afford not to work. Instead, Owen’s mother focused on organizing and taking part in therapies for their son. Slowly, the family of this autistic boy assembled a team of experts to help him. The parents claim the progress for Owen was painfully slow.
Most autistic children have certain things they are interested in or activities they never grow tired of. These obsessions appear to get in the way of an autistic child’s ability to learn anything. For Owen Suskind, his obsession was Disney. Despite having motor skill problems, he managed to master the remote control in order to play Disney movies over and over again. This was especially true of his favorites which included Little Mermaid and Peter Pan.
Owen Suskind was uncomfortable in social and noisy situations. Watching a Disney movie together was one of the few activities they could do as a family. The team of professionals, however, were not happy with the repetitive need to watch Disney movies that Owen Suskind had developed. They felt the obsession with Disney would restrict Owen’s ability to learn and develop. They feared the Disney obsession would only further isolate this autistic boy. Turns out they were wrong.
Per the experts’ recommendations, the autistic boy’s mother limited his screen time and focused on his speech therapy. By the age of six, Owen was able to put together simple three-word sentences and make a request with a lot of prompting. At the age of six, he still spoke mostly gibberish. He said some phrases from the Disney movies he grew obsessed with, but he appeared to be disconnected from the world around him.
His parents grew more and more worried about Owen Suskind and what his future would be like.
It was on the evening of his older brother’s ninth birthday that the Suskind received their first breakthrough with Owen. During the birthday when his older brother had eyes filled with tears, Owen suddenly said the following.
“Walter doesn’t want to grow up – like Peter Pan and Mowgli.”
According to his parents, it was the most complex and insightful thing Owen had ever said. Owen’s father reacted to the moment perfectly. He grabbed a Jafar puppet – one of his autistic son’s favorite characters from Aladdin– and asked Owen “How does it feel to be you?” He mimicked Jafar’s voice when asking him the question. To his surprise, Owen responded.
“I’m not happy. I don’t have friends. I can’t understand what people say.”
In that moment, it was as if Owen’s family had opened the door to his world.
“He was just shy of seven, and we realized that he was using these movies to interpret our world, the world we are all living in.”
From that moment on, Owen’s entire family stepped into the world of Disney with him. They would watch a Disney movie with their autistic son and then take on the roles of the characters in the show to help Owen understand the world he was living in.
Owen’s mother and father recognize the fact that not all families with autistic children have the means or the resources to devote the same intensive amount of therapy they were able to give to Owen. Owen’s mother is pushing to get the United States to do more to help parents with autistic children get the resources and therapy they need.
“It is a luxury that most people don’t have and I am continually trying to advocate and push for legislation in the US that makes insurance more fair so that other families are able to get access to therapy.”
Where is Owen Today?
Today, Owen describes himself as a “proud autistic man.” Owen Suskind aspires to be a Disney animator one day. He currently holds three part-time jobs, runs a Disney club with his friends, and even contributes to YouTube for a period of time. Though it appears as if he hasn’t uploaded a video in roughly a year, below you can watch the last video Owen uploaded to his YouTube channel.
Owen Suskind is not a young boy without a voice anymore. Today, he is a man. A “proud autistic man” as he describes himself. Per Guardian, Owen even acknowledges how difficult it is for him to know how much his mother and father struggled and worried about him when he was a child when asked how he felt about the film.
“I loved it! It was a little bit difficult to see my mom and dad talk about how worried they were about me when I was a boy – that made me sad. Back then, I couldn’t understand anyone when they talked to me. It was very weird. But I loved making the movie and I love doing the questions afterwards. People always ask me what my favorite Disney movie is, but I always say I love them all.”
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[Featured Image by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images]