Autistic Boy Trapped In His Own Mind Finds Freedom

young adults and autism
Dr. Drew Rubin

He’s speaking of his son, and many other parents will likely nod, understanding that communicating with their own children, especially teens, is not an easy task. But Ron’s son, Owen, isn’t like most other children. He’s autistic, but even that fails to convey the entire picture, as Owen’s autism is different than most” It’s regressive. Regressive autism accounts for only 25-30% of those on the autistic spectrum. In Owen’s case, just before his third birthday, after already learning many phrases such as, “Where are my Ninja Turtles?” and “Let’s get ice cream!” suddenly quit speaking. He cried inconsolably and struggled with sleep, refusing to make eye contact. His mother, Cornelia, was devastated and didn’t know how to reach their son.  Owen’s only focus seemed to be in Disney movies, so the Suskind’s found themselves watching hours of animated films. At first both they and Owen’s therapists worried about the time Owen was spending in front of a television screen, but when Owen was six, they discovered a remarkable breakthrough. Owen’s older brother, Walt, turned 9 in September of 1997. Owen was 6 ½ . Walt, who was rather sensitive on his birthdays, was sad, and when his parents returned to the kitchen, Owen looked at them. “Walter doesn’t want to grow up,” he said simply. “Like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” Stunned, Ron and Cornelia nodded at their son, who nodded back then retreated into his own world again. The parents discussed the situation over and over, trying to figure out just what had happened. Never had their son communicated in such a clear and advanced manner.  “It’s as if,” Ron wrote in his article for The New York Times, “Owen had let us in, just for an instant, to glimpse a mysterious grid growing inside him, a matrix on which he affined items he saw each day that we might not even notice. And then he carefully aligned it to another one, standing parallel: The world of Disney.”

Finding A Way To Connect With Their Son

Ron and Cornelia learned to tap into Owen’s consciousness by mimicking Disney characters. Iago, Sebastian, Balloo, Mrs. Potts, and many more were real people to him—characters that helped Owen define himself. They were “sidekicks”—Owen brought this word forward himself. Ron browsed through Owen’s sketch books and found a powerful statement of Owen’s: “No Sidekick Gets Left Behind.” The Suskind family has spoken frequently on what they have termed, “Disney Therapy.” Walt Disney’s original intent for his movies was for audiences to understand what was happening even with the audio track gone—all by the expressions on the character’s faces. For Owen and others like him, this is a powerful tool to reach inside their minds and help them connect their own emotions with the words the characters are saying. Owen has started a Disney movie club at his university on Cape Cod, where his brother, Walt, participates, as does Owen’s girlfriend who he’s been seeing for two years. Walt Disney may not ever have realized the profound impact his movies would have on millions. Then again, perhaps he would say the same as one of his future character’s, Iago: Why am I not surprised?