While catching up on my reading, I found a real gem: Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism by Ron Suskind. I had heard and read about it, but the original motivated me to write about this family’s story and the wisdom of their son with autism.
Owen stopped speaking just before his third birthday, had trouble sleeping, and cried inconsolably. However, he remained fascinated with Disney animated movies which he loved before the autism emerged. His father’s account of how the family connected with him through this special interest led to a series of breakthroughs. The family watched those movies over and over and began to communicate with their son through the movie scripts.
Joining with a child’s interest is not a new concept; in fact it came from developmental psychology and has become an accepted part of most autism treatment programs. What is remarkable in this book is the intimate account of how this worked day in and day out in a family: their thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and experiences. We also learn how they built partnerships in their son’s interest with teachers, therapists, and mental health professionals.
Having read hundreds of autism books from parents, researchers, teachers, various therapists, and people with autism, and having written a few myself, I would have to say this is one of the best yet.
It's so much more than just the memoir by a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. It has a broad applicability across the autism spectrum and across cultures and social classes. Beyond that it's about what it means to be family.
Of course average families do not have the financial resources of the Suskinds who poured about $90,000 per year into resources to help their son. With adequate public support, the methods they used can be made broadly available to address the rapidly expanding public health crisis of autism which currently affects over 1% of children born worldwide, 80% of whom are boys.
There is real grit devoid of a storybook ending; Owen Suskind does not recover from autism. He does make amazing progress, graduates from high school, attends a transitional program on Cape Cod, and meets a Disney producer. He does not become a Disney animator as he had dreamed. Owen will likely never become completely independent as his parents had dreamed.
Nonetheless and maybe because of this, Owen, like my adult son with autism who is nonverbal, is a good son and a good brother who has taught his family incredibly profound lessons.