Boy with autism returns to himself and the world

Owen Suskind used the characters, behavioral cues and ethical directives of Disney films to make sense of and deal with his own experiences. Photo by Dan Goldberg
Owen Suskind used the characters, behavioral cues and ethical directives of Disney films to make sense of and deal with his own experiences.
Photo by Dan Goldberg

Children’s films — especially the animated variety — always make sure to highlight the moral to the story. But very few children embraced those lessons as deeply and thoughtfully as Owen Suskind.
Now in his mid-20s, Owen had a normal East Coast childhood until he suddenly stopped speaking when he was 3. His parents, Ron and Cornelia, tried every strategy and tactic to treat Owen’s autism, but he remained uncommunicative and seemingly unreachable.

Ron, the best-selling author of such nonfiction books as “The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill,” relates in the beautifully crafted and irresistibly touching documentary “Life, Animated” that he was stunned one day to hear Owen repeat a snippet of dialogue while watching a Disney animated movie.

It took a few years, however, to figure out that Owen was using the characters, behavioral cues and ethical directives of Disney films to make sense of and deal with his own experiences. Benefiting from the dedicated attention of his mother and various tutors, Owen regained the ability to speak, interact with other people and thrive.

Adapted from Ron Suskind’s 2014 book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” the documentary is a nominee for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.

Unexpectedly, when Ron, Cornelia and helmer Roger Ross Williams — the first African American director to win an Oscar, for the documentary short “Music by Prudence”—sat down for an interview on a Sunday morning last May, before they presented “Life, Animated” at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the conversation centered on Owen’s bar mitzvah.

“When he was about 11,” Cornelia recalls, “his therapist gave me a book, which no one’s ever heard of, called ‘God and the Autism Connection.’ It talks about how so many, many of these kids operate, on a different emotional plane.”

“He always had been spiritual,” Ron adds. “In some ways, he preserved sort of a notion of God being there within reach that kids have, but even as he grew in sophistication he didn’t give that up. He always had this way in which he was not encumbered by the usual doubts or hesitations that become the common currency of most people’s lives as they grow.”

Ron and Cornelia (who is Catholic and did not convert) belonged Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda. Owen’s bar mitzvah tutor was Miriam Eisenstadt, whose mother was the first woman to be bat mitzvahed in the United States and whose grandfather was the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordecai Kaplan.

“The question was how would we get him up to the bima and have him do what’s needed,” Ron remembers. “First we had a problem where we didn’t know what movies to go to, because he really didn’t have much of a taste for ‘The Prince of Egypt.’ It just didn’t work for him.

So Ron switched from one Exodus story to another, pointing Owen to “An American Tale: Fievel Goes West.” “Basically, it’s Eastern European Jews as mice,” Ron says.

At the same time, Owen embraced the part of his parsha that discussed the commandments a person should follow.

“He’s very rule-oriented,” Cornelia explains. “He’s better now but he used to be very black and white, and rules are very important.”

On the bima, in front of the audience, Owen honed in one rule in particular: Never put a block in front of a blind person.

“He talked about that in his speech, the notion of special, and he broadened it,” Ron says. “He had the designation of ‘he’s a special kid.’ He said, ‘But I think God wants us to see everyone as special.’”

Williams reveals that “Life, Animated” included a poignant flashback scene from Owen’s bar mitzvah until it was removed from one of the last cuts. Indeed, the director goes so far back with the Suskinds that he arranged for the editing of Owen’s bar mitzvah video.

Consequently, it’s ironic and moving to see that the most savvy film buff in “Life, Animated” is Owen. He discerns and delineates the positive themes of Disney films to other autistic children and young adults.

At the same time that it recounts Owen’s childhood journey, the documentary follows his current path to living independently in a residential community with support.

“You can almost feel his desire — I think it’s deep in all of us — to arrive at a place of faith, of constancy, of a sense of a universe that is coherent, and a place of love and possibility,” Ron Suskind says. “He was searching for that on his own. He was often using the best of Disney to help support that architecture, which actually is a pretty good pick, if you think about it.”

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic.

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