Imagine you have a child who is running, playing, talking, and sleeping normally until he’s cut down in his tracks. His motor skills suddenly deteriorate. He no longer sleeps nights. He ceases talking and retreats into himself. The child you once knew vanishes. Even worse, imagine being that child.
Life Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams, is a documentary account of the Suskind family’s attempts to reach their son, Owen, after he is silenced at age three by regressive autism. Despite their efforts to find teachers, therapists, and doctors who can help recover Owen—it feels like he’s been kidnapped—they’re offered little reason to hope. Finally, “a year along, into the silence,” the family was watching Disney’s Little Mermaid, when Owen repeated the villain’s line, “just your voice.” At first, they misconstrue “just” as a request for “juice.” Then came the eureka (Greek for “I found it”) experience—is Owen trying to tell us he can communicate using the voice and words of Disney characters?
Excited at the apparent breakthrough, they took Owen to a specialist in developmental disabilities who said Owen is merely displaying echolalia—echoing or repeating of sounds he hears but can’t really understand, much like a parrot. Undeterred, the Suskind family—mom, dad, and big brother—continued the experiment by joining Owen in his obsessive immersion into Disney animated films. By purposefully using film dialog, coupled with formal education, they expanded the ways for Owen to interact with them and with the world at large.
Ron Suskind, Owen’s father—a Pulitzer-prize winning author and professor of ethics at Harvard Law School—released the hardback version of Life Animated in 2014. The film and paperback version of the book were released in July, 2016. Even more than the book, the making of the film was a family affair, showing how thoroughly Ron, Owen’s mom Cornelia, his big brother Walter, and an incredibly wide range of teachers, therapists, and other providers collaborate in helping Owen to connect with the world.
After graduating from a high school for students with disabilities, many with autism, Owen announced that he wanted to go to college, just like Walter. So, with his family’s blessing (and financial backing), Owen enrolled in the Life Skills program for autistic youth at River Ridge on Cape Cod in parallel with Ron and Cornelia’s move back to Massachusetts. They had moved from Massachusetts when Owen was three, shortly before there was evidence of regressive autism. At River Ridge, Owen founded Disney Club, which brings students together to observe clips from Disney films and then discuss their meaning and implications for their lives. By the end of Owen’s three years at River Ridge, Disney Club had grown from a dozen to between 40 and 50 students. According to Cornelia, many students graduate from River Ridge and start Disney Clubs in their home communities, thereby further disseminating a continuing vehicle for enhancing communication among young adults with autism.
One of the high points of Life Animated occurs when we observe Disney Club at River Ridge in action. We see Owen effectively running a meeting and demonstrating how students use film clips to stimulate discussion of important life skills. We see Owen capably voicing Iago, the parrot from Alladin. After a few moments, we realize he’s doing a duet. Then, Gilbert Gottfried enters the room and joins Jonathan Freeman, who is voicing Jafar. We realize that Owen knows both Jonathan and Gilbert and that, probably thanks to his father’s connections, he’s attained a degree of notoriety, and the film draws on that notoriety.
The Walter-Owen relationship plays an important role throughout the film. Early on, Walter takes on the role of protector when he sees Owen bullied at a child. Years later, with Ron and Cornelia in their mid-50s, Walter reflects candidly about the future: in due time, he’ll become protector of mom, dad, and Owen. We also see Walter getting concerned that watching Disney films isn’t providing Owen with age-appropriate psychosexual development. Walter tells Owen that a kiss involves more than just lips touching. He asks Owen what else he thinks is involved. Owen’s answer: “their emotions.” Still, we see Owen struggle with his first relationship and the inevitable breakup with Emily, another student at River Ridge.
My favorite moment of the film occurs when Owen is invited to speak at a conference in Paris about overcoming autism. Roger Ross Williams, the first African American director to win an Oscar (for a documentary short, Music by Prudence), is also present to speak. We see a large audience waiting in the kind of stadium seats historically associated with teaching large groups of students, especially in the sciences and medicine. Owen assumes the classic posture at the podium. When we expect him to speak, there’s only silence. And more silence. Finally, he opens his mouth and gives his greeting and opening remarks in French. He’s a huge hit.
In the latter portion of the film, Owen explains that he doesn’t identify with the heroes in the Disney films. Instead, he identifies with the sidekicks—like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, like Iago in Alladin. The latter half of the film uses animation based on Owen’s drawings to explain his 20-year journey and the role of sidekicks. An appendix to the book incorporates Owen’s drawings and explains the role of sidekicks. Williams also directed an animated short called Land of the Lost Sidekicks.
It’s widely believed that people with autism typically have certain exceptional skills that run deep but tend to be extremely narrow and rather impractical. Ron stresses in the latter part of the Life Animated that these areas of exceptionality shouldn’t be viewed as end points. Instead, they represent keys that can be used to unlock much wider ranges of potential. And that’s what we see happening with Owen.
My wife Ginger and I screened Life Animated in Bethesda, Maryland—a suburb of Washington, DC, in Montgomery County—not far from where the Suskind family lived for 15 years. When Owen was three, his regressive autism became apparent here; 15 years later, Owen graduated from high school here. Ron and Cornelia attended the screening as did many of Owen’s teacher’s from Ivy Mount and Catherine Thomas. Owen’s music teacher, who taught Owen and other students in her basement, came. So, in every way, being there for the Q&A period, and the continued conversation in the lobby afterward, felt like a lovefest. Walter wasn’t there and neither was Owen, but Ron and Cornelia talked about their sons with well-deserved pride. Cornelia apologized Owen wasn’t there: “He went to Sundance. He went to the New York premiere. Wherever he goes, when he walks out on stage, he thinks he’s Elvis, and that’s how the audience receives him too.”
After screening Life Animated, we followed Ron, Cornelia, and many members of the Owen entourage—former teachers and family friends—into the lobby. I asked Ginger, “Do you want to hang around and become part of the conversation?” She answered, “I can’t even talk right now.” That meant she was deeply touched by the film and was trying hard as a former special education teacher and administrator to control her emotions. I told her I needed to use the restroom and asked her to wait for me inside the theater. After re-emerging, I asked, “Would you like to move back closer to where they are?” She nodded. We inched our way back to where Ron and Cornelia held court. First, we watched the conversation around Ron—mostly former teachers. Then, we watched the conversation around Cornelia—mostly family friends. It seemed we’d never get close.
Finally, there was an opening and Ginger jumped right in. “I spent 26 years in special education as a teacher and administrator,” Ginger said, “right here, in Montgomery County. I thought I was done. But this film—you’ve done an amazing job—I know now how I want to spend the rest of my life. I want to work with young adults with autism as they make the transition to independent adulthood.” As her emotions bubbled up to the surface, Ron stepped forward and hugged her. Ginger talked about her desire to help autistic students identify their passions and use them as pathways. I shared with Ron that, after he graduated from college, our son Alex spent two years working closely with autistic fifth grade boys, one of whom never talked. Then, near the end of fifth grade, he came in one day, took Alex by the arm, and said, “Mr. Alex, you gotta stay out of a kid’s dreams.” A sign of another breakthrough!
Ron talked about their hopes to use the film as a springboard for a much larger movement, called the “affinity project,” centered around using passions as pathways. This “new service to benefit the autism community,” available at https://sidekicks.com, incorporates an app that works much like the stuffed animal through which Ron communicated with Owen after immediately after autism silenced him. The concept of passions as pathways means that, according to the website, “embracing the strong interests or ‘affinities’ of a person with autism can unleash untapped capabilities and open the gates to emotional connection.” Ron talked with Ginger about building a larger network and hands her his business card. Implicitly, he’s saying, “join us.”
There’s no question the film is exquisitely inspiring, heartwarming, and hopeful without being mawkish. Nearly all of us know children and adults on the spectrum. We can’t fail to see their communication shortcomings along with their passions, narrow but deep. The film helps engender greater compassion in our interactions with those on the spectrum. Does it offer a formula that can be used with all autistic children? Perhaps some; certainly not all. Can other children silenced by autism develop their exceptionalities without the love, dedicated time commitments, and financial resources the Suskind family offered Owen? Perhaps not. The central concept behind Life Animated is that families, educators, and others engaged in working with autistic children and adults can help them find their keys or passions and then use them to open and broaden their areas of exceptional strength. Perhaps an app like sidekicks.com can really help use passions as pathways. More than anything, perhaps what’s important is joining the larger conversation.