An Animated Look at the World of Autism

By Christina Elston

special needs

Owen Suskind, who has autism, uses Disney animated films to help connect with the world around him, and is the subject of a documentary that begins its run in local theaters July 1.

Lots of kids love Disney animated films, watching them again and again until their parents are driven to distraction – and have memorized most of the dialog. Owen Suskind’s parents, though, don’t complain about his Disney obsession. They credit it with helping bring him back to them. The documentary “Life, Animated,” in local theaters beginning July 1, lets us share that journey.

Near the beginning of the film we see a home movie of Owen, around age 2, at play with his dad, Ron. In their game of pretend, Owen is Peter Pan, Ron is Captain Hook, and the two are dueling with makeshift swords. It’s a happy, typical family scene. But in the months after Cornelia, Owen’s mom, captures it on video, Owen begins to change. His verbal and motor skills deteriorate, he stops talking and retreats into his own isolated world. Doctors diagnose autism.

One of the few things that seems to engage Owen is watching Disney films with his older brother, Walt. And about a year after Owen’s diagnosis, his family discovers that these films hold the key to reaching inside what Ron calls “this prison of autism,” and connecting with Owen once again.

Based on the 2014 memoir by Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, “Life, Animated” uses a clever mix of home movies and still photos, clips from Disney films, custom animation and interviews with Owen and his family to take us from Owen’s diagnosis to his high school graduation and move – at age 23 – to his own apartment at an assisted-living facility.

The film, directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered Williams the documentary directing award.

For the autism community, “Life, Animated” covers interesting ground. Many people on the spectrum have passionate interests – from video games to military history, dinosaurs, robots and – in the case of well-known autism advocate Temple Grandin, cows. The film showcases how Owen uses his passion for Disney films to make sense of the world around him, even using the film credits to teach himself to read.

special needsBut the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that not all of life’s experiences fit tidily into Disney dialog and plot points. Owen’s parents express their worries about getting older, and about Owen’s future after they are gone. Walt clearly loves and supports his brother, but in his mid-20s is already thinking about the day when he will take over responsibility for Owen’s care. And Owen struggles to adjust to his new independence, and to apply his Disney boy-meets-girl perspective to a real-world romance.

Through all their challenges, Ron, Cornelia, Walt and Owen form a family that is easy to root for. You can feel their love for and devotion to one another, and that is the true appeal of this film.

The saying goes that if you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism. Not every kid on the spectrum can use his or her passion to reconnect with the world outside their diagnosis – but maybe, for some, their interest is a path forward. That idea, like this film, is worth a look.

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