Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

'Life, Animated: A Story Of Sidekicks, Heroes, And Autism'

'Life, Animated: A Story Of Sidekicks, Heroes, And Autism'
'Life, Animated: A Story Of Sidekicks, Heroes, And Autism'
'Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism' GUEST:Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, "Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Of all of the mysteries of autism, one of the most baffling is how the condition causes some children to seem to forget what they know. Once healthy, talkative cobblers stop speaking and seemed to disappear before their parents eyes. That is what happened to Owen Suskind. In the early 90s, he was diagnosed with regressive autism. That is not where the story ends. Through an obsession with Disney movies, his family and his own determination, Owen found a way back to connect with the world. His dad has written a book about the families journey. Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, welcome to the program. His book is called Life Animated, a Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. You are the author of a number of best-selling political books, like the One Percent Doctrine, and Confidence Man. Life animated is by contrast a very personal story about your family, that your family has actually been living for the last twenty years. Why write about it now? RON SUSKIND: We realize that some point that this is the book happening behind all of this best-selling books. I'm interviewing presidents, and going to Pakistan and back. When taught us a great deal, especially about the left behind. I realize almost all of those books are about people left behind by the world. Whether it is Afghanistan, Pakistan, inner-city America, and hope in the unseen, the first book that won the Pulitzer. I said who is my teacher? The most left behind person I had ever met was living in the bedroom, my son, who could not speak or communicate. He was lost in a world that had trapped him in a sensory prison. The battle that helped us grow and help them grow was how to get in there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the 1990s, when Owen was diagnosed with autism, not as much was known about the condition as is now now. What did you think was originally going on with our when? RON SUSKIND: When we first heard the word autism, he had stopped speaking. He was 2.5 years old and chatting, and by three he had no speech. Someone said autism. What did we know? We knew Rainman. 1988, everyone knew that move. We embraced denial first, and were guided by it. Soon enough, we started to search, to try to understand him in ways that may be, before we never have thought of and could not see. We saw he was watching these Disney movies with peculiar intensity. He left a message child, and everyone loved Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, and Aladdin. We saw that it always seemed to give him cover, watching these movies. His motor control had gone haywire, except his thumb, and the rewind button. He was reminding certain parts. Then, we had a breakthrough. We realize some years later, that he was murmuring gibberish. If you threw him a line from one of the movies, he would throw you back the next line, and off you went. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That must've been incredible. You and your wife thought you had lost him. RON SUSKIND: Yes. My first conversation with my son is as Iago the Parrot, from Aladdin, Jafar's evil sidekick in case you had forgotten. I said to him, in Gilbert Gottfried's voice, which anyone can do. I said, holding the puppet up so he is looking at it and not me, I said Owen, how does it feel to be you? He looks at the puppet like he's looking at an old friend, and says not good. I am lonely and I have no friends. I am hiding under a bedspread with the puppet pushed up under the crease. I bite down hard, and I say stay in character. What would Iago say next? I said when did you and I become such good friends? He said when I watched Aladdin you made me laugh, and that is when. We started to talk. Iago and Owen. After two minutes of the conversation, I hear him clear his throat, and he says I love the way your foul little mind works. That was Jafar! I jumped out from under the bedspread and started to shout, oh my God! At that point, we knew we would have to play animated characters. Here I am, during the day, interviewing presidents. At night, my family, my wife, and my son, we all became animated characters. In the Disney animated canon from civil rights 1937, everyone is in there. It is about fifteen movies. We had to become scholars of Disney. He already was. We had to find the right seems to fit what he needed in his life, and find ways to express the emotion every parent wants to express to their child, and have him send those emotions back. That is how we grew as a family. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ron, talk to us about these affinities that many people with autism display. Your son obviously had the affinity with Disney movies. That other forms to the take? RON SUSKIND: There are many. Disney is big, anime, and apparent walked up to me the other day and said black and white movies from the 40s and 50s. He knows everything. I said fine, there is plenty to work with. There are map kids, and train kids. We used to call it Disney therapy. Now we call it affinity therapy. It is finally being embraced and studied by all major institutions. It really is this. You and I have our passions. We are permitted to have them. These kids for many decades were not, because they were seen as sessions. That is just the way they are built. They cannot move around like will be sunflowers. We are foxes, they are hedgehogs, if you do Isaiah Berlin. The key was, we found if you embrace affinity, the kid will let you in deeper and deeper to show you what he is doing with the affinity. They use it as a code breaker. Like the enigma machine during World War II, to break the code of the wider world. What we found, which is so powerful, is that their underlying capabilities, which are often invisible, I revealed only through affinity. Now, what we have, is MIT, Yale, and other universities studying affinities as pathways. They are bringing in groups of kids, turning on Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, whatever it is. They are seeing parts of neurology that light up and activate. What they're finding in this age of neural plasticity is what you expect. For every visible deficit, there is an equal and opposite strength. The question is not if, but where? You identify the strength, visual acuity, pattern recognition, it is often attached to emotional acuity. That becomes the pathway. The compensatory muscles are beyond yours or mine. It is like high school physics. Conservation of energy. It does not vanish. It goes somewhere. When part of your neurology is stressed, where does it go, that energy? That is what we're finding. This is very exciting in the community. Finally, science is coming around. I spoke at NIH, the United Nations, and I recently testified in front of Congress. I think we are at the dawn of a new era in helping not just kids like when with autism, but many kids who are a little out of balance. Some of them are the most creative people that you know. We do not have a place at the table, the one-size-fits-all model of both education and therapy. I think that will change. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to put this in in order for me to understand. Owen was watching Disney movie after does the movie and was not medicating for a long time as far as you and your wife knew. Then, it became obvious that he was saying words that came from the script of the Disney movie? RON SUSKIND: That is right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So your family started to talk to him in the words of the scripts of the Disney movies. And then, the big breakthrough that you had was not from a script from a Disney movie, but from himself when you are playing the Disney character. RON SUSKIND: Exactly. At first, we did a lot of scripts talk. Then, he started to emerge this way when he becomes eleven or twelve, and speech comes back, and he learns to read by reading credits. He froze the screen. We thought, why is he singing the end song of the movie so it is playing for an hour? We realized it was because he was rewinding the credits. Then, he has built a whole architecture, his own emotional language them a using hundreds of hours of dialogue and lyrics. It is utterly his own. And it was powerful, many of the Disney movies themselves. We had flown out to Burbank to see the Disney people who are enlightened by this. They say he seems to understand our movies better than we do, and we made them. I said there are a zillion kids like him out there. Let me introduce you to them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What did Doctors say about this? RON SUSKIND: At first they went with orthodoxy. These are obsessions, wheel in the ditch, and cut him off. But they came around, a little by little, when they saw and how he was growing through the affinity, not in opposition to it. It took a while, but now they are fully in. It is exciting for them now, to see NIH, MIT, and Yale saying you guys were right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You made a point if you contacted Disney and let them know about this. I think an advisor of yours told you every word your son is saying is copyrighted worldwide. RON SUSKIND: Right, that is what my agent told me. When my wife decided we were going to do this book, Andrew, he is a famous British agent. He said Ron, every utterance of your child is licensed. There are going to be licensing fees on every page of the book. I said that is ridiculous. I could not go to Harper and Collins or Simon & Schuster, my regular publishers. I had to go to an imprint of Disney. Of course they were delighted to see me. They said what are you doing here? Is that I have to come to you, I can go anywhere else. We had been in interesting dance with Disney. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You made it clear this is not a collaboration with Disney in any way. A lot of people, as you know, do not necessarily like the Disney empire RON SUSKIND: We have conflicted feelings, we will leave it at that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is really focused on the affinities that autistic children and autistic people might have, and to learn how to build on that, is that right? RON SUSKIND: That's right, it is not about Disney, it is about the affinities. They cross passionate and deep interests. That is what people realized reading the book. That is why we call it affinity therapy, not Disney therapy. What is interesting about it, is how much we are all learning from their example. We know this intuitively and interpretively. Our passions are where we show best ourselves, where our intellect is integrated and connected to emotions and our beings, and ourselves. That is something all of us recognize. We go through a one-size-fits-all model of education that often stands in the way of that. We say hit the bell here, win the game, and move up to the next round. That is increasingly becoming an obsolete way to discover, and identify human times, and nourish it. In some ways, we are living in an ever more directed world. These kids are leading rather than following. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In addition to your book, you will be returning to San Diego next month. You will take part in an event for the California Center for Performing Arts. Tell us about that. RON SUSKIND: It's going to be in Escondido, and it is going to be wild. That is why I am coming back. There is a place called Terri Inc., one of the best operations in the country, that deals with folks like Owen, 700 to 800 of them of all ages from kids to senior citizens. I am so moved by what they do. I said I want to come, they're going to build a big campus where all of these folks will be together, and it will be a driving point for research going forward. We're going to do a big show, a great celebration, with an orchestra playing all of the key songs from Disney going all the way back. I will do my stories and the voices, we will have video, it will be a night that changes people and lessons see the subtle, headlights we often miss. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How is Owen doing now? RON SUSKIND: He's doing really, really well. It is nice, he is globally famous, and people hug him in the street. And, he does voices. I will tell you now, he was in front of a big crowd, they were very warm and loving, and he came up to the state. He said should I do a voice? I said sure. He does Merlin and Arthur, he can do both voices brilliantly. I said I think I know which one you will do. He says well, Merlin, this love business is a powerful thing. Arthur says greater than gravity? Merlin says yes my point, I think it is the most powerful force on earth. And he turns to the crowd and says I feel love in this room. This is what is going to happen at the Escondido center. It is happening around the country. We have been on Jon Stewart and every network, and NPR five times. It is a revolution. I think people should come join it. It is October 17. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in and sharing your story.

Of all the mysteries of autism, one of the most baffling is how the condition causes some children to seem to forget what they know. Once-healthy, talkative toddlers suddenly stop speaking and seem almost to disappear before their parents eyes.

That's what happened to 2-year-old Owen Suskind.

Back in the early '90s he was diagnosed with regressive autism. But that's not where the story ends. Through an obsession with Disney movies, his family's devotion and his own determination, Owen found a way back to connect with the world.


His dad has written a book about the family's journey. Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His book is called "Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism."

Ron Suskind will be speaking in the San Diego area at an event called "Building Bridges" on Oct. 17 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

Building Bridges Event

Oct. 17, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

California Center for the Arts, Escondido

Event features Pulitzer-prize winning author Ron Suskind and a Disney musical presentation by the Palomar Symphony Orchestra.

For ticket information online.

Suskind is collaborating with the non-profit TERI (Training, Education, Research & Innovation), an organization supporting more than 600 San Diego families with children and adults who have autism and special needs.