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Autism and Disney were an unlikely duet that gave a child his voice

Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney
Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney
Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Ron Suskind articulates how his son Owen suffered the tragedy of regressive autism. And then came the light. Was it Mickey, or Ursula from Little Mermaid, or Iago, or the myriad of Disney characters that gave Owen a voice, but his scribe was Disney, through and through. In a New York Times exclusive Reaching my autistic son through Disney, Ron Suskind describes the powerful snippets, precursors to his book, soon to be released:

There’s a reason — a good-enough reason — that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities. In our experience, we found that showing authentic interest will help them feel dignity and impel them to show you more, complete with maps and navigational tools that may help to guide their development, their growth. Revealed capability, in turn, may lead to a better understanding of what’s possible in the lives of many people who are challenged.

Suskind weaves a spell over all of us who have autistic children, and recognize the connection to characters, often Disney. Watch the video, it is stunning; as Owen breathes life into his view of the world, spoken from a young man who knows Disney and shares his autism. Animation is a stage for expressing autism.

Perhaps the best way to punctuate where you are in life is to remember from where you have been. Cliché as it sounds, sometimes it is just the kicker we need.

When our quadruplets were born in 1987, my brother gave us a video camera. It was a huge piece of machinery, weighed easily 20 pounds, and took energy and patience to learn how to operate; it was the best gift I have ever received.

It chronicled miracles.

I left the video camera right on the counter in my kitchen, always perched, ready to record. First steps and haircuts, birthday candles blown by multiples, new outfits in four different colors were filmed in unison as we beamed and smiled and cried.

Today, my 24 year old son Paul who has autism reminded me how I sang Disney songs to him as a toddler. What grabbed my heart was that I sang to him when he was non-verbal, and now he was reminding me. The memories flooded my head, like an ocean of unnerving nostalgia. I sang to him when he woke up in the morning, I sang to him during meals, in the bath, on the deck, in the park, at the beach. I sang to get his attention, a glimpse or a smile was my compensation. I earned it, like a beggar for a meal. What I wanted to do was cradle him, and protect him from a future with autism.

I held him and watched while he slept and wondered what he dreamt about. I wondered if he dreamt with language. Did he talk in his dreams? Did he sing? Did he understand?

And so today, was particularly special. More than twenty years have passed and without provocation Paul took a walk down memory lane…”You used to sing to me: A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” And without skipping a beat he continued “It was written by Jerry Livingston, Mack David, & Al Hoffman in 1950”. And then he crooned, like an old soul siphoning words like an angel. In dreams you will lose your heartaches, whatever you wish for you keep…have faith in your dreams and someday…your rainbow with come shining through…

The gift of autism.

So I brought out the old tapes and took my own trip on the video highway. What a buffoon I was, jumping and dancing to Disney. My kids simply had to think I was insane. But it was their norm: A mother of multiples, one with autism; with a mission to conquer.

I think I will use this lesson as my own reality bite.

And as Owen Suskind, a wise soul, spoke to his Dad about The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Gargoyles:

“He needed to breathe life into them so he could talk to himself. It’s the only way he could find out who he was.”His Dad asked“You know anyone else like that?”“Me.” He laughs a sweet, little laugh, soft and deep. And then there’s a long pause..“But it can get so lonely, talking to yourself,” my son Owen finally says. “You have to live in the world.”

And so he will.

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