In the eyes of 23-year-old Owen Suskind, Disney movies are a window to the world.
For Owen, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3, the movies help him understand emotions. They help him make friends. They even help him speak.
Screened at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri this March, the documentary film Life, Animated follows Owen’s journey from childhood to adulthood as he learns to cope with autism.
Owen struggled throughout his childhood to interact with the world around him. His parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind, sought a way to help him communicate. Owen would speak using gibberish and nonsense syllables, but no one could understand what he was trying to say.
That is, not until his father decided to use his favorite Disney movies as a tool.
Speaking from behind a puppet of Iago, the villainous bird in Aladdin, Ron Suskind asked his son questions, and Owen responded in plain English. It was the first real conversation they’d had in years.
Since that day, Owen has used memorized bits and phrases of Disney films not only to help him communicate, but to help him understand human emotions. When his brother Walt was sad after a birthday party, Owen said, “Walt doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan,” referring to the main characters in The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. When he was bullied in high school, Owen processed his feelings by watching a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame where Quasimodo is teased and tormented. And when he graduated high school, he used The Lion King to understand what it means to “come of age.”
Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams, is based on Ron Suskind’s bestselling book of the same name. Using interviews, voiceover and original animation by Mac Guff, the film does a gorgeous job of telling a story that’s both heartbreaking and uplifting.
The film is authentic in its depiction of autism, a brain disorder that is often misunderstood. Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is characterized by difficult social interaction, language deficiency and repetitive behavior. One repetitive behavior Owen displays in Life, Animated is echolalia, a condition where a person repeats a word or phrase they’ve heard over and over again. While all children repeat words as they learn language skills, children with autism often continue this behavior as they age. The movie shows Owen using echolalia as a tool. It’s how he’s memorized countless Disney movies, and how he’s learned to communicate.
Ron and Cornelia Suskind are now advocates of “affinity therapy,” a new type of psychological therapy that uses an autistic child’s deepest interests as a method of communicating. Ron Suskind and his wife are working with Dr. Dan Griffin, a psychologist, to refine this practice and teach it to other caretakers of autistic children, according to the film’s website. The method uses listening, role playing, dancing, rewinding and replaying as tools to help children with autism engage with their environment. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, and the University of Cambridge are teaming up to explore this therapy further.
Life, Animated is a bold, brilliant tale of how autism can be viewed as something other than a disability.
The film will be released in North American theaters later in 2016 by The Orchard, according to the Life, Animated website.
The video below from the show “Democracy Now” includes an interview with Owen and clips from the film.