How Disney movies gave an autistic boy his voice

In Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism , Pulitzer-winning writer Ron Suskind tells the incredible story of how his son Owen disappeared into "regressive autism" at the age of three, losing the ability to speak or understand speech and developmentally degenerating across a variety of metrics, only to reemerge a few years later, able to communicate through references and dialog from the Disney movies he obsessively watches.

A long excerpt in the New York Times, generously illustrated with Owen's expressive fan-art, hints at a book that is wrenching and inspirational by turns. It reminds me of 3500, Ron Miles's memoir of raising a son with autism who was able to engage with the world through thousands of re-rides of Snow White's Scary Adventures at Walt Disney World.

Suskind is a brilliant writer, and the excerpt is deeply moving. I've pre-ordered my copy.

The sketchbook flies open, the black pencil in hand. He looks from the picture to his pad, picture, pad, picture, pad. And then the tightly gripped pencil begins to move, a lead-lined crawl. Most kids, most anyone, would begin with the face — where we all tend to look first — but he starts on the edge, with the crab leg, then the claw, which take shape in a single line. I think of those old-style drafting machines with two pencils poised above two pads, the pencils connected to a mechanical apparatus, a crosshatch, so that moving one would create the same motion, the same precise line, with the other. At the end, you’d have two identical drawings, side by side.

But here’s the crazy part: Every part of him starts moving except that rock-steady hand. His whole body begins twisting and flinching, moving as much as you can move while kneeling, with his free arm bending in the angle of Sebastian’s left claw. Five minutes later, when he gets to the face, I look up and see a reflection of Owen’s face, me behind him, in the darkened screen of the TV in front of us. The look on the crab’s face in the book is replicated in my son’s reflection on the TV, where, of course, we’ve watched this scene — of Sebastian watching Ariel lose her voice — so many times.

And then it’s over, like a passing storm. He drops the pencil, rears back, turns his head, leaps up and bounds off.

It freaks me out.

He can’t write his name legibly. But here is a rendering of a Disney character that might have easily appeared in any one of 20 animation books in his room.

I squat down and begin flipping. It’s one character after another — the Mad Hatter next to Rafiki, and then Lumiere, the candelabra from “Beauty and the Beast,” and then Jiminy Cricket. The expressions are all so vivid, mostly fearful. Dozens of them, page after page.

I settle in cross-legged on the carpet to examine the pages. What do the drawings mean? Are the faces of these characters a reflection of hidden, repressed feelings? Does he race through the books looking for an expression that matches the way he feels and then literally draw that emotion to the surface?

Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism [Amazon]

Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney

(via Kottke)