June 13, 2014: When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s son was 2 ½ years old, he lost his words. The little boy who just a week ago had been trying out a whole mouthful of new words was suddenly down to one word: “juice.”
You don’t grow backwards. Something had gone wrong in the Suskind household. Their younger son, Owen, was diagnosed with regressive autism, a condition that can rob a child of their speech, sometimes for life. Yet, as Mr. Suskind pointed out to the group gathered to hear his TOS Talk at Temple Ohabei Shalom on Tuesday night, you make life out of what is in front of you.
Ron Suskind’s new book Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism describes the moment that the Suskinds were forced to change: their minds about what it means to be disabled in a world that marginalizes anyone different, their hopes for their son’s future, and their overall picture of themselves as the perfect family.
It’s also the story of how Owen’s fascination with Disney movies became his lifeline to the outside world. One day while the family is watching The Little Mermaid for what Suskind says was the “119th time” Owen becomes fixated on a line that the evil Ursula says to Ariel when they’re talking about turning Ariel into a human. Ursula demands as payment that Ariel give her “just her voice.” Owen starts repeating this line over and over. Seeing something prophetic in Owen’s choice of dialogue, Ron and his wife Cornelia are sure they’ve had a breakthrough, a “Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan moment.” But Owen’s doctor attributes it to Owen simply parroting what he hears on screen.
Still, it is through the canon of Disney’s animated films that Owen starts to regain his words. When Owen is 6 ½, his parents discover that if they talk to him in the voices of his favorite Disney characters, he will interact with them. A particularly poignant moment in Suskind’s talk is when he describes using Owen’s puppet Iago from Aladdin to communicate with his son. Doing a dead-on imitation of comedian Gilbert Gottfried—who voiced Iago in the film—Suskind asks Owen, “What does it feel like to be you?”
“Not good,” Owen replies to Ron-as-Iago, “I have no friends.”
Suskind recalls biting his lip to keep himself composed and not break character. Later, the family realizes that Owen has memorized ALL the Disney animated movies he has ever watched, and that he understands the world through the characters in these movies.
The Suskind’s so-called “Disney Therapy” morphs into a new term: “Affinity Therapy.” As Suskind describes it, a child with Autism often develops a strong passion for something, and that affinity becomes their language—a way for them to break the code and reach the outer world.
Owen’s other affinity is for sidekicks, the supporting characters whose mission is to “fulfill the hero’s destiny.” Owen draws hundreds of pictures of sidekicks and declares himself “the protector of the sidekicks.” The only person he draws as a hero is his older brother Walter, whom he idolizes. Owen wants a Bar Mitvah just like his brother, and the second most poignant moment of Suskind’s talk comes when he tells the story of Owen’s speech at the ceremony, where Owen brings the room to its knees with a very earnest speech about loving your neighbor as you love yourself. “God wants us to treat everyone we meet like we would treat ourselves,” he says, punching the air for emphasis because his father taught him it was a good technique for public speaking.
“Life is hidden under bushel baskets,” Suskind reveals to his own captivated audience Tuesday night. “We are all sidekicks helping one another fulfill our destiny. This is when we are at our best. This is how my son taught our family how to be Jews.”
TOS Talks at Temple Ohabei Shalom are a new series featuring lectures delivered by provocative and nationally renowned luminaries like Rabbi Harold Kushner and Sherry Turkle, PhD. Rabbi Sonia Saltzman leads the discussions. For more information about TOS Talks, visit www.OHABEI.org.
--By Jennifer Campaniolo, Brookline Hub