A Young Man’s Obsession with Disney Helps him Thrive with Autism

A Young Man’s Obsession with Disney Helps him Thrive with Autism
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By the time Owen Suskind was 3 years old, his parents knew their lives would be anything but typical.

Owen had seemed “normal” up until that point, when his motor skills suddenly deteriorated, and he lost the language he had attained. He was diagnosed with autism, and Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, said it was like “Someone kidnapped our son.” [1]

Owen is the subject of a new documentary called “Life, Animated.” In the film, he is seen as a young boy in videos, and is portrayed in original animated scenes by the French visual effects company Mac Guff. Much of the documentary, however, follows the day-to-day lives of the Suskind family when Owen is 23 years old.

In the film, Owen is in the process of graduating from a special school in Cape Cod. He is getting ready to move into his own apartment in an assisted-living facility. He has a girlfriend. And just like when he was a child, he is still very much in love with Disney cartoons, even running a Disney cartoon club, which he says makes him popular with his fellow students.

You see, after Owen lost his motor and language skills as a toddler, his father – a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author – was able to tear down the walls erected by his son’s autism by playing with him with a hand puppet. During these play sessions, Ron took on the persona of Iago, the villainous sidekick in the animated Disney movie “Aladdin.” These interactions revived the engaged, self-aware conversations that the entire Suskind family believed they would never again have with their son.

More than a decade ago, I worked with autistic adults. Today, my husband works with adults with autism while finishing his graduate degree in counseling. We both know from experience that even non-verbal autistic people are “in there” – it’s just a matter of finding a way to help them “break out.”

For some autistic people, that can be done through a computer or a tablet that allows them to type out their thoughts. That’s the case with one of my husband’s current clients. For others, it can be done through art, and art is what has helped Owen navigate the world.

“Life, Animated,” based on Ron’s 2014 memoir of the same name, chronicles how movies – especially Disney cartoons – have helped the now-25-year-old Owen to process his emotions and life experiences.

It took home a top prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and is already generating early Oscar buzz.

In “Life, Animated,” Owen conceives of his own animated film, based on his fears that he’ll never be a hero, and that he’ll never be able to make his own choices or act as a leader. Will he only ever be a sidekick?

He sketches and writes “Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” which Roger Ross Williams – the director of “Life, Animated” – turns into a film. [2]

And though he may not realize it yet, Owen is very much a hero to other people with autism who are searching for their voice, and to parents who worry about their autistic children’s quality of life. More importantly, his story is only beginning.

Owen may have a future in the same industry he has admired his entire life.

When Entertainment Weekly asked Roger Ross Williams if a job at Disney could be in the cards for Owen, Williams responded:

“That’s his dream. And he does voices so well.

That same trip [when Williams and his colleagues presented the film to Disney heads], we did a tour of Pixar and Owen went into the booth and started doing voices with his older brother Walt, who always does Gaston. Owen was just a natural. I would hope that they would hire him someday to either draw or do voices. It would be a dream come true.

When you ask him what he wants in his life, what he sees in his future, he says, ‘I want to work at Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California.’

He’s been going to film festivals with us, and he’s very clear about two things: that he wants to work at Disney Animation Studios and that he’s looking for a girlfriend, preferably who lives in the Boston area and loves Disney. He announces that everywhere he goes.”



[1] NPR

[2] The Washington Post