Parents Connect With Autistic Son Through Disney Movies

Journalist Ron Suskind writes about his family's experience in 'Life Animated'

When Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism at barely 3 years old, his parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, wondered where their once-chatty little boy had gone.

Whereas Owen once said "I love you" and asked about his Ninja Turtles, Ron writes in The New York Times Magazine, all at once the 3-year-old started avoiding eye contact, forgetting how to use even a sippy cup and using only a single word—juice.

Owen was diagnosed with a form of autism that starts affecting children between the ages of 18 and 36 months. Before that, kids hit the usual milestones. For children diagnosed with regressive autism, however, those milestones disappear.

It wasn't until 1994, when Owen was nearly 4 years old and watching Disney's The Little Mermaid with his 6-year-old brother, Walt, that something seemed to change.

Owen kept rewinding and playing back one part of the film, finally repeating a phrase from the movie.

That's when Ron, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, found an inroad to communicating with his once-silent child.

Ron later used the voice of the parrot character Iago in Disney's Aladdin to ask Owen, "How does it feel to be you?" he tells Good Morning America.

To Ron's surprise, Owen answered, "Not good. I have no friends, and I can't understand what people say. And I'm lonely."

A 12-year-old Owen at Disney World. Photo via The New York Times

Finally, the family could communicate with Owen, and they realized they would "have to become animated characters" to continue.

That was the start of what Ron calls "The Basement Sessions," where the family would act out scenes from the movies, which Ron says gave Owen a language to "make sense of his life."

Owen is now 22, and he still uses this method to communicate. In addition to a book by his father, Life Animated, Owen is also the subject of a documentary called Animating Owen.

Ron tells GMA that he hopes other kids with autism find something they're passionate about that can act as a "bridge" to connect them to family, friends and the rest of the world.

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