(NEW YORK) — Owen Suskind’s world came to a halt in 1993. The toddler stopped talking, showing affection and engaging in the world around him.
His parents Ron and Cornelia Suskind took him to a doctor and heard a shattering diagnosis: regressive autism.
“We just froze,” Ron Suskind told Nightline. “The doctor started to explain, ‘OK, this is going to change your life. He may never get his speech back. Many of the kids don’t.’”
Ron Suskind, an award-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, said that around this time his son “started to vanish.”
“He couldn’t look at you,” Ron said. “He walked around like someone with their eyes closed.”
At age 4, Owen’s language became gibberish and his frustration grew, but he found comfort in animated movies. Then one day, there was a breakthrough. Ron said Owen had been watching “The Little Mermaid” and started saying what sounded like, “Jucervus, Jucervus.”
“Cornelia thought he wanted more juice,” Ron Suskind said. “So she gives him the juice. He knocks the cup over.”
That’s when Ron said they realized he was referring to the movie. “He rewinds it the second time. Then the third time, and Cornelia [says], ‘It’s not juice.’”
Owen was fixated on a pivotal scene in the movie when Ursula the sea witch says to Ariel, “Just your voice.”
“I grab Owen and say, ‘Just your voice!’ and he looks at me for the first time in a year and says, ‘Jucervus,’” Ron said. “Pandemonium broke out in the bedroom.’”
The family discovered Owen had memorized every line from every Disney movie and eventually realized that by speaking dialogue in those characters’ voices, they could communicate with their son. Ron first started talking to his son with an Iago puppet, the parrot from the movie, “Aladdin.”
The Suskinds spent the next several years immersing themselves in Owen’s world. Now 20 years later, Owen and his family are sharing their hard-won journey in a new documentary, “Life, Animated,” the same title of Ron Suskind’s 2014 book about their experience. “Life, Animated” is opening in theaters on Friday.
“We were living a kind of double life,” Ron said. “I’m interviewing presidents, and at night, we’re animated characters.”
For Owen, watching those movies made him feel like he was in a better, safe place.
“The world was so noisy coming at him, overwhelming him,” Ron added. “The movies were the one thing that didn’t change.”
Dr. Rebecca Landa has spent 20 years working with children who have autism and said it’s important to pay close attention to what the child is trying to express. She said one of the things that can happen with these animated movies is that children will learn parts of the script.
“They can’t put together the words from scratch to express their idea,” she said. “So they’re borrowing from the movie.”
Beyond the storylines, Owen, now 25 years old, said he feels a kinship with certain animated characters.
“The sidekicks,” he said. “They’re so fun-loving and entertaining and also help the heroes fulfill their destiny.”
In fact, Owen compares people in his life to sidekicks from Disney movies. He said he sees his father as Merlin from “The Sword and the Stone” and his mother as Mrs. Potts from “The Beauty and the Beast.” The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of ABC News.
Owen is just one of many with autism who are drawn to animated stories. Colleen Sottilare said her 22-year-old son Jonathan finds great comfort in these movies, especially “Toy Story.”
“His mood changes if it comes on, he’ll just stop and watch it, and calm down,” Sottilare said. “So I think it really has just a really calming influence on him.”
The animation connection has offered Owen a way to make friends. He even started a Disney club at his school, where he said they discuss the films and how they relate to their lives.
“They start to talk and they’re speaking the language of Disney to each other,” his father Ron said. “It’s like magic.”
Embracing their son’s complex world led Ron and Cornelia Suskind to see the world differently.
“We saw there are many affinities,” Ron said. “The kids who are Harry Potter kids and Star Wars kids — they use these passions as code breakers to crack the codes of themselves, their place in the world, their identity.”
It’s a lesson for parents of children with autism who worry that their kids are too obsessed with certain subjects, Landa said, and that can be a good thing.
“If you take those interests but you just wiggle a little further away from them, slowly but surely, you can bring in new experiences for children,” she said.
One of those new experiences is real-life interaction with an animated character. On a recent trip to New York City, Owen got to meet Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the evil villain Jafar in the animated movie, “Aladdin,” and now plays the character in the Broadway show version. At the New York premiere of “Life, Animated,” Owen had a sing-a-long with award-winning composer Alan Menken, who wrote many of his favorite Disney movie tunes.
Today, Owen is working and living on his own.
“He changed, but he didn’t become less,” Ron Suskind said. “We just needed to learn who he was.”
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