The World of Disney Meets the World of Autism
This article is about the documentary”Life Animated” and the Disney lessons that apply to reaching those with autism.
What happens when you merge the world of Disney with the world of autism?
If your autistic child loves Disney like mine, then read on.
You will discover valuable insights about the power of using the lessons from Disney stories to forge a connection between the inner world of autism and the wider world beyond ourselves.
I am NOT a movie critic.
I viewed this film from the perspective of a parent who has children with autism (aka, the “intended viewer”). Rather than critique the quality of the film, I observed the lessons both the parents and their son learned over the course of their autism journey. I found new insights as well as emotional support by relating my own experiences to theirs.
I hope you can, too.
INTRODUCING…THE SUSKIND FAMILY
From the beginning of the documentary Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, it’s easy to see that Ron and Cornelia are your pretty typical American parents.
They work hard to support one another. They nurture their children to achieve developmental milestones.
And they record their journey raising their kids through video, photos and writing.
But when their youngest son turned three, their world turned upside-down. “Owen vanishes,” says Ron. His motor skills deteriorated, he was no longer sleeping well, he lost eye contact, and his language processing broke down, only reciting “gibberish”.
“Someone kidnapped our son…”
Owen had AUTISM.
The painful devastation of receiving the diagnosis for the first time was still very evident on his father and mother’s faces, even though Owen is now in his 20s. Their doctor worried he would never talk again, who told Ron this problem was “out of my league”.
It hurt me to see their longing for the way he used to be. The idea they could still CONNECT with him seemed gone.
TURNING A PAGE…
It’s clear in the opening scenes of the film that adult-Owen understands and communicates very well with those around him. To go from “not talking at all” to expressing himself in full, descriptive sentences obviously means…
After receiving the diagnosis, they did not resign themselves to the possibility Owen would never improve.
But despite four years of therapy, Owen was still exhibiting “echolalia” (a repeated pattern of speech that mental health professions believe to be dysfunctional). It was not certain that he understood the meanings of what he said. His parents were starting to believe that wouldn’t change.
DISNEY TO THE RESCUE!
Owen loved watching Disney movies. It was the only way to keep him calm and happy in an overstimulating world.
It was also the best way he could connect with his older brother—if they couldn’t talk together they could at least have that shared experience of enjoying Disney side-by-side.
As the family watched The Little Mermaid one night, Owen said “juicervoice”.
Finally, it dawned on the family that he was saying “Just your voice.”
This is the line used by the Sea Witch to convince Ariel that taking her voice was a small price to pay for being human. Owen’s parents believe that this line has significant parallels to the type of challenge he faces in connecting to others using his voice.
In other words, he understands its relevant meaning for himself…more than just parroting words.
Ron expresses his astonishment and hope that Owen is “still in there”. They “set on a rescue mission to get inside…autism and pull him out”. And they used Disney movies as the rescue lifeline.
It wasn’t enough to allow Owen to memorize all the dialogue and act out the scenes of every Disney movie. He had to interact with others who also knew the scenes.
His parents used puppets to enhance the interaction. This may be helpful for those on the spectrum who don’t tolerate full attention to themselves in their interactions with others (it’s diverted to the puppets).
They knew being able to recite movie-lines well was not the end goal. “Scripting” was a functional means of working toward achieving meaningful, two-way social communication.
Simply practicing the dialogue also enhanced Owen’s own speech and language skills, both receptive and expressive. Instead of making Owen practice language that did not have meaning for him in traditional therapy, they used something he was passionate about.
As Owen got older and mastered speech and language, his parents and therapists moved on to helping him figure out the subtle nuances of social communication.
Now it wasn’t enough to act-out movie scenes. They used the Disney stories to help him navigate the complicated social world of non-verbal communication.
Owen likes that fact that animated characters have exaggerated facial expressions to convey emotions—sadness, anger and joy are black-and-white. The slyness of Iago in Aladdin is easily conveyed when he looks to a scheming Jafar.
Disney movies have also helped Owen deal the emotional burdens of transitioning from one setting to another. The film shows scenes of Peter Pan as Owen is about to embark on a new journey into adulthood: independent living away from home.
Whenever he encounters a new step in his life, he refers to scenes from Disney movies that he can relate to and thereby feel emotionally supported. “My childhood days are over, but that doesn’t matter,” says Owen, sitting by himself in a dark theater, scripting a scene from the Lion King in which Simba, now king, roars triumphantly.
PROTECTOR OF SIDEKICKS
One of the most haunting fears of any parent whose child has autism is the prospect he or she will be bullied.
When Owen attended a new school, he became more withdrawn and his behaviors regressed. After a while, they found out that a couple of boys at school told Owen they would burn his house and hunt him down, tormenting him.
Because he thinks so literally he thought his house would burn down and kill his parents. As Cornelia recounts this horror, scenes of Quasimodo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) getting mercilessly harassed are shown. (I’m basically crying at this point…)
After confronting the bullying at school, Ron noticed Owen working on something in the basement. He had been drawing Disney characters, but they are all sidekicks—no heroes were drawn.
Owen has identified himself not with the movie heroes but as “the protector of the sidekicks…(because) no sidekick gets left behind”. He wrote “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks”, of which the film shows a beautifully created animated short.
Owen had used Disney characters and themes to create an original story to process his own complicated emotions associated with rejection and loneliness. Through his story he identifies with those sidekicks who provided him emotional support on his journey through dark times.
At the end he rises to become a “protector” of those “left behind”.
I caught myself thinking, what an amazing achievement…not just for someone with autism, but for ANYONE. If this isn’t a perfect example of self-empowerment, I don’t know what is!
APPLYING THE LESSONS FROM “LIFE, ANIMATED”
I laughed, I cried, I learned…
I had previously read the book (which I loved because I could relate to their journey well), so I knew what to expect.
I didn’t expect this documentary to be such a visual treat.
Using scenes from Disney movies that mirrored Owen’s personal growth experiences was very effective in conveying the importance of this form of media in their lives.
Needless to say, it’s a good movie to watch with your autistic son or daughter. My daughter got into the animated scenes of Owen’s story since she loves to draw.
Because Disney is so ubiquitous in our culture, it should be easy for someone watching this to sense how certain characters and themes were necessary for him understand particular situations in his life.
Disney themes have a steadfast, enduring quality that provide a comforting reassurance. Despite hard times, individuals will rise to the occasion with love and support from others.
As my own kids with autism love Disney so much, this film is incredibly relevant to our family. My kids picked up language easier from watching these movies, especially my son who used closed-captioning as he watched them.
Lesson One: Learn with Joy
Owen’s journey exemplifies that using an AFFINITY-based approach to learning life skills is very effective for those on the autism spectrum (not just a “strengths-based” approach).
The Suskinds approach using Disney is what Temple Grandin has been advocating for years:
target a person’s interests and obsessions rather than general positive qualities and skills.
A person’s “affinities” are used not only to motivate the person to deal with life issues and learn skills in therapy-based settings but can also be used to create and produce a stand-alone product that others appreciate or toward a career.
These affinities should not be seen as a prison but as a “pathway”. Instead of viewing these “obsessions” as “dysfunctional”, mold them into a functional learning process in which the child learns to interact with the wider world.
As my own children are now in their teens, their childhood Disney passion has become a Disney obsession.
As Disney movies have motivated my son to learn language, he is now self-empowered to write his own Disney stories. My daughter is obsessed with drawing cartoon characters with intense emotions and themes.
I convinced the speech and music therapists to motivate my kids through their Disney-based interests. My son practiced social communication skills as a “park tour guide” in speech and composed a Disney musical score. My daughter learned speech, language and executive functioning skills by reading Disney stories and singing and playing Disney songs.
I even used the original classics upon which Disney based for his movies to motivate my daughter to read books in our homeschooling endeavor.
Without passion, learning language and social skills may be a more arduous process for both the parents and the child.
This link provides more information on the affinity-based techniques that may be used at home or in therapy.
Lesson Two: Get on the Floor and Out of the Box
In order to connect with Owen, Ron and Cornelia had to also know the Disney scenes and dialogue really well themselves. They changed their thinking (and the prevailing thought at the time) that too much TV was bad, that these Disney movies could actually be good for his education and growth.
Just like play-therapy, they got down on HIS level to reach him—to “think outside the box”.
Not only does this mean recognizing your child’s interests but taking the time to really interact in a way with your child that may feel weird or uncomfortable.
For example, it seemed odd or wrong that my kids used movie scripts to talk. But I realized they were able to talk to each other.
“Scripting” was not necessarily a bad thing because they were learning to talk back-and-forth in a two-way social conversation. Once I played along, I had more joyful, meaningful interactions with my kids.
It also means being flexible enough to FAIL—to recognize when something doesn’t work and letting it GO. The reality is that a child cannot be MADE to behave a certain way just because we want them to.
If an approach doesn’t work after a period of time, try something else. Sometimes they have outgrown a certain affinity and it no longer motivates them. Or an approach is too demanding and exhausts them. Even therapies can get old and no longer be effective—do something new and fun!
And use puppets if you have to!
Lesson Three: Identify a “Meaningful Life”
I admit that some films with an autism character feel exploitative. This one did NOT.
Ron and Cornelia don’t complain about Owen’s “bad behavior” but reflect upon the multitude of self-adjustments they had to do in order to meet him where he was at. Their journey of empowerment and self-discovery was just as important as Owen’s.
As his caregivers, they naturally worry if he has the right social and executive functioning skills to live independently and to his highest potential.
The question of a “meaningful life” is presented in the film. That often comes up in conversations with others, including therapists in IEP and ISP meetings.
The life-goals for Owen are discussed within a collaborative team of “experts” (including mom). Owen generally agrees or disagrees with the ways of achieving those. While he’s involved in the process of making decisions for himself, he’s not fully “running the show”.
As he gets older, it becomes harder for mom to accept reality of his “deficits” that she has worked so hard to help him overcome as a child (even homeschooling him).
Cornelia’s look of uncertainty and angst hit me in the gut. I know that I will be facing the same reality with my own kids soon. Knowing just how much or little outside help they are going to require to live a good life.
While most parents are dreaming of their children’s futures with starry eyes, many parents whose children have autism often have a very clouded vision of their futures.
Only when I reflect upon some real-world examples of “normal people” needing guidance and support well into adulthood do I realize that I may be taking the perspective of future despair too far.
Ron remarked that letting our kids fail is actually the goal for autism parents. We need to take a leap of faith and let our kids advocate for themselves at some point.
This was illustrated by the fact that while Owen was invited to give a speech to an autism panel in Paris, France. Ron refused to write the speech for him. He was firm in making him discover for himself what he needed to say.
We can cheer-on our grown kids but we can’t do it for them. A meaningful life means letting them discover for themselves what they need to do to grow in self-confidence and contentment. It doesn’t necessarily mean a completely independent existence.
I found it interesting that the Suskinds discuss the fact that Owen “disappears” into autism. To me, it seems evident that he regressed into autism rather than was “born that way”. They never say he has “regressive autism”. Instead they use metaphorical terms to describe their experiences.
It’s unclear whether they explored dietary or other medically-based interventions. Based on their language to discuss his challenges, they were more concerned about helping him socially connect to others through innovative means rather than be medically-treated.
The agenda of the documentary is not about what they believe caused his autism but on the present developmental reality of autism.
I recommend this film for those have autism, for those who love someone with autism (especially parents), and for those who work with those with autism. If it makes you change your perspective even a tiny bit, it will have served its purpose.
As for myself, it led me to conclude that what I was doing to help my kids was actually okay…and that I’m not alone. I had the same struggles: emotional breakdowns, therapeutic resistance, and educational dilemmas.
But I also have fun, happy experiences with my kids that help them learn, grow and connect with others (like going to Walt Disney World). Knowing that they have achieved so much already gives me hope for their futures.
What a privilege to be granted access to witness the powerful potential in all of us to rise above the challenges we are given with the support of those who love us.
The documentary film LIFE, ANIMATED can be found here. LIFE, ANIMATED: THE STORY OF SIDEKICKS, HEROES AND AUTISM can be found on this non-affiliate link here.
If you want to experience the magic of Disney in real-life, I would love to help you plan a magical vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California! Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!