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The magical world of autism and Disney

Twenty years ago, I discovered that if we connected two portable yard fences, we could create the ideal playground for our quadruplets, right inside our den. A giant fenced in circle, situated in front of the television, our four babies were safe and collected in one place. Musical video tapes became our “virtual babysitters”. It was magical. Disney choreographed the scene as every melodious note gave rhythm to their steps, literally. My camera was always propped, waiting to film our children, and countless hours of home movies illustrate their bouncing legs and shaking behinds. Naysayers might criticize the time we devoted to television and non-reciprocal play; but we did what we had to do, and to this day, music is an important part of our children’s lives including our son Paul, who has autism.

Paulie was non-verbal, and facing the fight of his life, was particularly mesmerized by these musical vignettes. He would stop on a dime, when the song "You and Me" from Disney’s Oliver and Company appeared on the screen. A smile as broad as morning sunshine would spread across his cheeks spawning a glimmer of hope in my heart. “What are you thinking?” I silently screamed. “What is your passion? How can I reach you!” I climbed in to our makeshift corral and watched him glow. When the song stopped, the sparkle faded. I got up and replayed the song: my own personal repetitive action. (Historically, therapists shun the notion of repetition. It is frowned upon in the autism specialist’s world. Autistic children, who crave control, are often stuck in their own worlds of repetition.) There I was, enabling, without even knowing it.

But was I? History is a funny thing. It is shaped by time and experience and sometimes, even change. Perhaps I was not enabling, but allowing my child to blossom. Now Disney has unwittingly partnered with autism in a most reciprocal way. It has given life to a young man who has emerged from regressive autism. Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind has brilliantly told the story about his son Owen, and how Disney movies saved his life and the life of his family. Ron's new book Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism invites readers along the Suskind family journey. It is a wild ride, accompanied by Aladdin and Merlin and a cast of multifaceted Disney characters.

This week, on CBS Sunday Morning, Lesley Stahl talked with the Suskinds about Breaking Through Autism With Disney Movies. Stahl's interview is a stunning portrayal in a nutshell. Owen's story is so fascinating, and for families living with autism, it is inspiring. Ron and Cornelia lost their child; he was there, and then he was gone. Ron told Lesley Stahl: "It was like trying to find clues to a kidnapping -- where did he go?" Years of investigation and therapies left more questions. It was Owen's obsession with Disney that opened the door, and became the instrument for progress.

The overall message is to find the catalyst that makes a difference for your child. Additionally reported by Stahl, Kevin Pelphrey, who directs the Child Neuroscience Lab at Yale, said, "Individuals with autism have rich experiences, rich feelings, rich emotions -- those can be harnessed to help them learn, to engage with the world."... autistic children's obsessions -- which parents are often told to try and limit -- can instead be used in therapy. "This is sort of a new approach in thinking about taking that one thing and really making it central to the child's social world,"

Disney cannot cure autism, And yet, the possibilities are endless.

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