Many children on the autism spectrum develop affinities, or what we might call obsessions. They focus on things like train schedules, maps, baseball scores, video games, or, in the case of Owen Suskind, the subject of his father, Ron Suskind’s, new book, Life, Animated, classic Disney movies. We could also call these “affinities” passions, but the psychiatric establishment might object to that positive spin, because “affinities” are generally thought of as symptoms, signs of the child getting tangled up in his or her own repetitive thoughts. They are considered the autistic child’s way of warding off the world because it’s too scary or confusing to engage. If therapists indulge affinities, it’s generally as a reward for the child attempting appropriate social behavior. (Make eye contact and I’ll let you watch Aladdin).
But in Owen’s case, the opposite happened. Just shy of his third birthday, Owen developed regressive autism, meaning he essentially stopped communicating. One thing he still loved to do was watch Disney movies with his brother, and he’d watch the same scenes over and over, as his father recounts in this New York Times Magazine excerpt. Then one day, while watching The Little Mermaid, Owen said the first word he’d said in a while: “juicervose.” His mother Cornelia figured out that he was saying “just your voice,” from a song Ursula the sea witch sings to the mermaid Ariel. The family took that as a sign that Owen was looking for a way to get his voice back. From then on, Disney scripts became the language the Suskind family used to communicate with Owen, literally, speaking to each other in the voice of various characters to address real-life problems.
As he got older, Owen began to use the voice of various Disney sidekicks to understand the world around him. Speaking in his own voice, he could sometimes seem confused or shut down, but when he mimicked one of his favorite characters he could access insights about people and situations that were “otherwise inaccessible to him,” his father wrote. Eventually the family began working with therapist Dan Griffin (a Slate contributor) to help Owen use the scripts more creatively. He stayed in character but began to improvise, developing a comfortable way to express his inner thoughts.
As it happens, my son Jacob has also seen Griffin, who is based in Maryland. And while Jacob has a much milder form of autism than Owen, he’s certainly had his affinities over the years, starting at a very young age with letters and graduating lately, at age 10, to Minecraft. I spend a lot of evenings talking to my son about Minecraft, and I get caught up in the same worry as many parents in my situation: Am I helping or hurting him by indulging this obsession? Should I connect with my son over his favorite subject or let him know that soliloquies about Minecraft strategy are not usually a successful path to friendship?
To help answer this, I recently sat down with Ron, his wife, Cornelia, and Griffin in Griffin’s office. I wanted to explore how they came to the Disney insight, which overturns much of what we think about how an autistic brain works; how they managed to harness this insight for therapy; and finally, to find out whether there was a broader lesson that parents of children on the spectrum—and maybe even all parents—could draw from their experience. More specifically (and selfishly), I wanted to know how to make the most of my nightly Minecraft bonding time.
Ron Suskind: It started when Owen was about 6 1/2, and we’d have these basement sessions.
Cornelia Suskind: At that point he was much less flexible, so if he wanted to watch The Jungle Book, The Jungle Book it was. But year by year, he started to become more talkative when we just watched the movies. We’d be sitting and watching, and while all eyes were on the screen he was settled and available and we were all sharing the same context, so he could answer questions related to the movie. Side-by-side interactions.
Slate: Did you mention his Disney obsession to your therapists back then?
Ron: Everyone we worked with knew about it. But the general thinking was that it was best to tamp it down and get to more pragmatic speech and building skills in all the areas where he had huge deficits.
Cornelia: We got a really poignant letter from one of his teachers this week saying, “I really wish I’d listened to you guys and believed you when you told me all about Owen and Disney and not bought the party line!” Things could have been very different. But no one really took it seriously before Dan.
Dan Griffin: I remember it to the day. We took a break from therapy. Usually Owen hightails it out of the office, and this time he stayed. And you guys did a scene, with Iago [from Aladdin], I think. And suddenly there was this whole ionic charge in the room. You were much more engaged. He was much more engaged. It seemed like anything was possible. There was pure connection and pure joy, and it hit me pretty quick, we’ve got to be able to exploit this!
Ron: I’ll tell you what it was. It was the scene where Iago says, OK, “So you marry the princess and you become the chump husband.” Owen did that one. And I’d say, as Jafar, “I love the way your foul little mind works!”
Griffin: Yeah, my head was spinning a little. What caught me is that it kept him super-focused on something he would ordinarily not find that interesting, or he would find confusing—multiple ambivalent feelings, subterfuge, loving a girl but lying to her.
Ron: He could speak much more naturally in a sidekick’s voice than in his own. I remember Cornelia, Dan, and I really feeling our way around this thing. Is there any precedent for this? I remember Dan researching this and discovering little out there that applied, that could give us a framework.