Disney Characters Help Autistic Child Emerge From Lonely Autism


Michael Rosen, executive vice president of strategic communications for the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, said his own 25-year-old son, who has been nonverbal with autism since birth, "is obsessed with Disney."

"There is a comfort in it -- a familiarity with the Disney logo," Rosen said. "It's almost like going to a fantasy world for these kids -- they are so familiar with the sights and sounds. Disney has always been important to all our community. … I think because it's so ubiquitous."

Mirroring the characters is common, he said of Owen's experience.

"I haven't heard of fictional characters and the idea of a breakthrough before, but it makes total sense," Rosen said.

Both Ball and Rosen say there is a "fallacy" that children with autism do not experience empathy or emotion.

Suskind said the Disney stories are "emotionally rich" -- "the stuff of journeys," folklore and fairytales. When Owen met Don Hahn, the co-producer of "The Lion King," Hahn reportedly said the boy "understood the story better than he did."

With the guidance of a good therapist Owen became, in his own words, the "protector of the sidekicks," those who are bullied and left out.

"It's a tree falls in the forest thing," Suskind said. "Just because they can't express their emotions doesn't mean they don't exist."

Today, Owen is 23 and attends a special school on Cape Cod where he is president of the Disney Club, an organization he founded. The group has grown from just a dozen members to more than 35. They watch Disney movies and stop, mid-film, to sing the songs, "with gusto," according to Suskind. "They know every word."

Suskind recalled a visit to Owen's Disney Club where a young man with autism and a mind like the "Rain Man," asked his birthday and in seconds repeated the day of the week he was born.

"I say to Dan, who is your character -- who do you bond with?" said Suskind. "A lot of the kids who don't speak pick Dumbo or Pluto, the characters who are nonspeaking. I can see Dan is going deep and says 'My character in Pinocchio. … Because I feel like a wooden boy who is always dreaming about what a real boy feels and who is born with wooden eyes. I am just learning to see.'"

Suskind said people have different forms of intelligences and those like Owen and Dan cannot be judged by standard IQ scores.

"That only gives people an excuse to discard them and not listen to them and see them as a person of value," he said.

Suskind, who teaches an ethics course at Harvard University, said without hesitation: "My best teacher has been my son. You wouldn't ask for this in a thousand years. Your dream would be not to have to wrestle with it. But you make life with what is in front of you."

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