“I loooove the way your fowl little mind works.”
March 7, 2014 3:29 PM   Subscribe

At three, Ron Suskind's son, Owen, was diagnosed with regressive autism and all but lost his speech. A year later, watching Disney's The Little Mermaid, Owen's parents heard him speak again. Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney. (SLNYTimes Magazine, with video)

Suskind previously on Metafilter.

Disney and autism previously on Metafilter
posted by roomthreeseventeen (21 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
If the link is truly just supposed to explain regressive autism this is a much better option. It defines the condition and incidentally explicitly debunks the autism/vaccine junk science.
posted by Wretch729 at 4:02 PM on March 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Eeek, sorry about the vaccine link. That's embarrassing. Mods, feel free to get rid of that link if you can.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:09 PM on March 7, 2014

[Ok, deleted a link to an article with some autism/vaccines stuff per OP request, along with a few comments objecting to that article; carry on!]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2014

I saw this when it came across Facebook and I am not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby.
posted by KathrynT at 4:24 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sometimes it's not that you can't get there from here, but you find out that the trip is going to be a lot longer and more complicated than you thought it was going to be. I'm glad we're hitting the point where the stories are able to go this far--I think a lot of the early hysteria came from the fact that all the stories were like, "my toddler stopped communicating and my heart broke" and that was, well, it. Kid regressed, life is destroyed, all you can do is weep. But now a lot of those kids are adults who are able to communicate and turn out to have rich lives of their own. And yet the cultural picture of autism is still the toddler.
posted by Sequence at 4:44 PM on March 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

That was really beautiful thank you, I choked up a bit, I can't lie. Really resonated with me as a parent, as a one time carer of autistic kids, as someone who is very infested I Disney and has written about them academically, and finally as someone who is not in the spectrum at all but completely identified with the use of Disney, myths and legends, to both comfort in hard times, and inspire.

The thesis really resonated with me.
posted by smoke at 4:54 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Huh, I know that story. Because I've lived it. I even wrote a book about it. (If you are so inclined, you could go to my mefi profile and follow the link to my website for more information, or search mefi projects for a post about it).

I knew this book was coming out. Several months ago I was at a book signing for Marty Sklar and his new book, and as he was signing my copy I thanked him for everything that Disney Imagineers had done for my family, and told him about my son's experience with Snow White. He mentioned Ronald Suskind and told me about the forthcoming book that is summarized in this article.

Disney gets a lot of guff for being an evil corporate beast, and in a lot of ways they are guilty of that charge (particularly as pertains to the public domain). Even so, Disney has done more for my son and improving his life skills than any other single force. Yes, lots of teachers and therapists and hard work from all of us involved in his life, but it has been the tremendous carrot of Disney in general and Walt Disney World in particular that has given us the fulcrum to move my son's world. I'm not surprised at all that other people have the same experience.
posted by Lokheed at 5:35 PM on March 7, 2014 [19 favorites]

Is it a little dusty in here, or is it just me?
posted by Sara C. at 5:40 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also you know I think this piece is a wonderful explication of the ways we use stories to understand the world and our places in it. I think most people would recognise the rush of emotion you feel when a story suddenly becomes personal, means something to you bigger than the story, even if you can't articulate or understand it. What staunch allies stories can be for us; courage, passion, humility, love, just a thought away, whenever you need it.
posted by smoke at 5:49 PM on March 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Lokheed, I have read your book and shared it with others. I hope you are looking forward to the new Mine Train!
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:04 PM on March 7, 2014

I wonder how much HUGE LIPS + good lip sync has to do with this. Disney films get dubbed into other languages all the time, but would those dubs ever have such an effect?
posted by LogicalDash at 6:17 PM on March 7, 2014

I wonder if there's something unique to Disney's kidsy vibe, or if this would apply to most animation.

Because the thing about about animation is that it's an additive process, everything that's put in is put there on purpose. Compare that to live action movies where the trivialities of actual life have to be subtracted from stories in order to make a mass that's still very inflected by what's left of the lifelike chaos.

I think for a certain subset of people in shells, the simplicity of deliberateness is really really attractive.
posted by tychotesla at 6:29 PM on March 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Because the thing about about animation is that it's an additive process, everything that's put in is put there on purpose.

In Scott McCloud's excellent book "Understanding Comics", the entire second chapter is about exactly that. "When we abstract an image through cartooning, we're not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential 'meaning' an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can't. ... The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power, both in comics and in drawing generally. Another is the universality of cartoon imagery. The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe."

Oddly enough, reading that particular chapter of that book helped me understand my autistic son in a way that actual texts on autism never had.
posted by Lokheed at 7:01 PM on March 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

You know, I was all steely hearted and proud of myself for making it through that article without crying...then I got to the part where they visited his club and talk about the kids realizing they were being taken seriously for liking Disney and then my steely heart was gone and it was dusty up in this here room.
posted by sio42 at 7:13 PM on March 7, 2014

“But it can get so lonely, talking to yourself,” my son Owen finally says. “You have to live in the world.”

posted by sio42 at 7:17 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

That is incredible; what amazing good fortune for all of them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:50 PM on March 7, 2014

This reminded me of Unfrozen: How a Disney Movie Gave My Daughter Hope.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:12 PM on March 7, 2014

Oh, my goodness. This is my nephew. He's seven and from the age of four his dialogue was 99% movie lines. He couldn't communicate unless the situation overlapped with something he'd seen, over and over, in a movie. He would obsessively rewind and watch the first ten minutes of Cars, or the middle part of Flushed Away, and it drove his older brother up the wall until he was old enough to understand (and, like Walter, he's an amazing twelve year old now with incredible empathy).

We have always embraced his ability to pull movie quotes to match the occasion. Before we really understood what was happening, we would try to persuade him to let others watch the whole movie, hide the remote control. He controlled the TV regardless of who else was in the house and what they wanted, and at first we treated it as "naughty" behaviour that needed to be fixed, but very quickly discovered that it was his means of interacting with the world. When he came to stay sometimes my dad would punish him by putting the DVDs away out of reach, but he couldn't cope.

My two favourites were from Flushed Away ("Careful mate, they're not chocolate buttons!" in the movie to mouse droppings on the ground; my nephew says it to tell you not to step on something) and the Dukes of Hazzard movie ("Homee shiiiiiiit!" -- not for polite company but whenever my sister drives too fast).

He has speech therapy now and is more able to interact using his own words. When we skype he'll ask how we're doing and tell me what his favourite activity is. He used to fill in the gaps in conversations, when he didn't have the right movie words, by making up his own sounds. He's come a very long way, but it was the movies that bridged the gap between complete non-communication and today's talking. He's going to the Gold Coast this year to Movie World, and he's going to have the absolute best time there. I can't wait to hear about it.

It goes without saying that I absolutely bawled reading this article. What an amazing family.
posted by tracicle at 12:21 AM on March 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

This is a fantastic article. Thanks for bringing it here. Owen's determination and his family's support are both wonderful to read about, and it feels to me that there are some real insights here. I hope it will be possible to build on this work to help other autistic people (it sounds like the Owen's therapists might already be doing this in their own work).

Sequence: I'm glad we're hitting the point where the stories are able to go this far.

I agree.

I also loved this part:
When I ask the group which Disney character they most identify with, the same student, now enlivened, says Pinocchio and eventually explains, “I feel like a wooden boy, and I’ve always dreamed of feeling what real boys feel.” The dorm counselor, who told me ahead of time that this student has disciplinary issues and an unreachable emotional core, then compliments him — “That was beautiful,” she says — and looks at me with astonishment. I shrug. He’d already bonded in a soul-searching way with his character. I just asked him which one.
posted by daisyk at 3:36 AM on March 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This from late in the article is perfect:
The latest research that Cornelia and I came across seems to show that a feature of autism is a lack of traditional habituation, or the way we become used to things. Typically, people sort various inputs, keep or discard them and then store those they keep. Our brains thus become accustomed to the familiar. After the third viewing of a good movie, or a 10th viewing of a real favorite, you’ve had your fill. Many autistic people, though, can watch that favorite a hundred times and seemingly feel the same sensations as the first time. While they are soothed by the repetition, they may also be looking for new details and patterns in each viewing, so-called hypersystemizing, a theory that asserts that the repetitive urge underlies special abilities for some of those on the spectrum.
This hits exactly why films/TV (I know autistic adults who relate intensely to TV shows in exactly this way) work to develop these relational skills and real-world interaction does not. So much extraneous information in real-world scenarios - it's super hard to perceive what neurotypical brains hold as important across different interactions.

For me this article makes quite difficult reading as I'm fairly familiar with autism-described-from-the-inside so seeing people work it from the outside slowly is frustrating and heart-sore-making. What's the most painful actually is the way the whole process of understanding gone through by the family is an undoing of "traditional" (oppressive) views of autism - when if we (in a perfect world) based our understanding of autism and how to interact with autistic people on what autistic people tell us about it there wouldn't be misconception to undo. I'm glad though that autism advocacy means this is slowly, bit by bit happening. So it's difficult - the article mixes oppressive views and liberating ones and isn't a straightforward journey from one to the other, although the basic "we learned to communicate with Owen in a way that works for him and us" is liberating, perfect, hard work, necessary, wonderful. Communication is a human right.

sorry for expression, having bad-depression-related word problems
posted by lokta at 10:57 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Suskind previously on Metafilter.

Another previous Suskind post (and the source of the infamous "reality-based community" quote): Without a Doubt.
posted by homunculus at 11:22 PM on March 8, 2014

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