For many of us, Disney animated films are just entertainment. But for the Suskind family, these films are much, much more. After all, it was through these films that their son Owen learned to relate to the world around him and make sense of it after autism took him away. And it was through these films that his parents found a way back to him.
As happens with many children eventually diagnosed with autism, Owen was a “typical” developing kid until the age of 3. Then he became a shadow of his old self, no longer talking, playing, looking people in the eye—he was there physically, but had otherwise disappeared. He stayed that way for another 3 ½ years, until one day when they were all watching a Disney movie. Owen looked at Ron and Cornelia and said, out of the blue, that he didn’t “want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”
It was the first time Owen had communicated in years, and it was both a substantial thought and a substantial sentence. His parents finally realized that he hadn’t been gone all of those years; he’d simply been locked inside himself. And during that time, he’d watched and memorized and processed every single animated Disney movie they’d played for him. He’d formed his identity based on Disney characters and his understanding based on the films’ lessons.
Although doctors cautioned the Suskinds from getting their hopes up, they continued to use Disney animation and characters to reach and reconnect with their son. As Ron explained, “the goal was to do whatever worked.” Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, wrote a book about the journey to reach his son, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” and recently realized his dream of having the book made into a movie.
That movie, “Life, Animated,” presents Owen’s story in the closest way possible to relate to what he went through—using animation. The result is something amazing and precious, heartwarming and heartbreaking. “Life, Animated” is a stunning tribute to the selfless love of two parents who were willing to do whatever it took to help their child live in our world, on his own terms.
As Cornelia says, “Who decides what a meaningful life is?”
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