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How Disney Movies Helped a Family Connect With Their Autistic Son

Chatting with ‘Life, Animated’ director Roger Ross Williams

On his brother’s 9th birthday, Owen Suskind — then 6 1/2— turned to his parents and said, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” Not unusual for another child, maybe, but Owen had “disappeared” around 3 — becoming distant, silent and detached.

So his reference to two of his favorite Disney films, The Jungle Book and Peter Pan, gave Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia hope: Was the Owen they once knew still in there somewhere? Was his love of Disney movies a way they could reach him?

Director Roger Ross Williams (who has previously won an Oscar for his documentary short, Music by Prudence) picks up where this story leaves off, basing his documentary Life, Animated on Suskind’s book of the same name. Suskind tells the story of how his son Owen, who was diagnosed with a form of regressive autism, is finding his way in the world with the help of Disney.

Can you tell me a little bit how you first got involved with Owen’s story?
I’ve known Ron for 15 years; we met as journalists and he told me about [his] book [Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism] when he was writing it. I thought, “Yeah, this will make a great film.” I’d done a piece about how Cornelia’s parents met when Ron and I worked on a show for PBS together. I also helped out with Owen’s bar mitzvah video.

Really? You’ve been with this family for so long.
Yes. Cornelia always says that I’m the only person she would have allowed to make the film.

How have you seen the relationship between Ron and Owen change over time?
I started filming soon after our meeting, which was I guess the fall of 2013. Ron and Owen have a very amazing and deep relationship because Ron does voices almost as good as Owen does. Ron has always done voices. He’s always done the voices of all the presidents. He does all the presidents, at least the modern-day presidents. He has a knack and a talent for that, and I think Owen inherited it. When they’re together they really have this amazing connection, and they often do Simba and Mufasa.

When The New York Times did the excerpts of Ron’s book, I did a little video clip, which was the first shoot I had ever done, and it was Ron and Owen in Owen’s room at Riverview. Ron and Owen do this scene where James Earl Jones says, “You are my son,” and it’s just the most beautiful thing — I mean, watch it, because you will tear up. It’s something about this incredible bond between a father and a son, and it really touches people. That was how the film came about. People saw that and they were just so moved and it sort of started this whole ball rolling.

It’s interesting that you say that Ron did voices before he and Cornelia discovered Owen’s love for Disney. It almost seems like if he didn’t have that knack, he might have never thought to have done the Iago voice that brought Owen out of his shell.
Yes, you know what, that’s weird. It’s a very specific action, and when they realized that Owen was memorizing all these Disney animated films, for Ron, because he has a natural knack to do voices, he just said, “Oh, okay, I’m going to talk to him in the voice of Gilbert Gottfried.”

That’s not an automatic response.
No, it’s not, but for Ron it was. When you think about it, that that connection, the first conversation that Owen had with another human being after he was diagnosed [with autism] was with his father Ron. They’ve always had this very, very powerful bond, and now Ron knows these films almost as well as Owen does.

But then you see Owen interact with his brother, Walt, and you can tell that Walt is very different from his father. To him, these voices don’t come naturally.
Owen gives everyone in his life a sidekick character, but Walt is the only one he draws as a hero. Walt is the only hero and he has always been someone who Owen has looked up to. That scene where Walt is sitting on the pier…

That’s when I cried.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was Walt’s birthday. And Owen says that Walt gets emotional on his birthday. He does. Walt started to get weepy, and then he got up from the table and I chased after him. I was like, “This is the time to talk to him.” So I took him down to the pier, and boy, did he just open up and really expressed himself.

As we screen the film, siblings all across the country have been saying how much they identify with Walt and that moment. Because the siblings of children with autism never get heard from; they never get a voice. Walt has given them a voice and he’s like this unsung hero. He’s the brother who has to rise up to the occasion and, in a sense, grow up faster and take on the responsibility. Every time we have a screening, people cheer Walt on.

When you were making the film, did you delve into Disney films as well?
I wasn’t a Disney person. I didn’t watch a lot of Disney growing up. But as I started to make the film I learned something about Disney. These films are really just classic myths and fables that have been told for thousands of years, and Disney updated them. Disney sort of ripped them off, really. What I learned is that the reason that they’re really these guides to life is that they are stories that have this incredible power to make us human and connect to each other.

Owen had become an expert on myths and fables because he grew up on a diet of Disney, so he’s, in a sense, become an expert on life. I learned a new appreciation for these films, because they’re such hero’s journeys — both right and wrong. In the past, I had just seen them as these sort of corporate products.

Was it hard to get the rights to use the Disney film clips?
It wasn’t easy, but I developed a relationship with Sean Bailey, who is the president of Walt Disney Pictures, and he really helped us navigate through all of that. He had me come and take the executives on a journey through my vision for the film. I showed them clips, clips of Owen’s Disney Club, and by the time I finished this presentation, they were all in tears.

I mean, it could not be better press for Disney.
Yeah, but we also wanted to show that life is not a Disney movie, and that Disney doesn’t deal with issues like sex and breaking up, and various things that Owen has to go through and learn.

How has the response been from the autism community?
Oh, amazing. From both the autism community and people outside. I’ve done interviews with people with autism and they said that they’ve never seen a film that actually got who they were. It was always important for me to tell the story from the inside looking out, not from the outside looking in, for the audience to embody and become part of Owen’s world. People tell me that they didn’t understand what autism was, and after watching the movie they totally got it. That’s really a great compliment.

Disney was the key for this family. Maybe if there’s anything to learn, it’s that families who don’t know what the key might be for their child, they need to pay attention their child’s passions.
Look for the key. Yes, exactly. Because of the film, the idea of affinity therapy has really caught on. When Owen goes to that conference in France, it is the first ever conference on affinity therapy. It started this whole thing. Cambridge, Stanford and MIT have started a study because of the book and the film.

You can see Life, Animated in theaters now and read an except of Ron Suskind’s book —Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism —in the New York Times magazine.