Owen Suskind and His Parents Talk About the Autism Documentary “Life, Animated”

Posted on July 8, 2016 at 8:00 am

Owen Suskind tells me, “It feels interesting to be on the autism spectrum and fascinating.” His parents remember what he has said to them about how it feels to have autism. Ron Suskind reminds him, “Remember you said you see everything at once and you can remember all the moments in your life, maybe too many moments, but you go across them and you get a sense of what?”

“My place in the world,” Owen answers.

Cornelia Suskind adds, “And sometimes it’s a little overwhelming having all the stimulation coming in to you at once. You need to create a quiet space around you. When you were younger it was hard to communicate, language was really hard.”

The Suskinds were there to talk about their new documentary, “Life, Animated,” based on Ron’s best-selling book about Owen and how he taught himself about the world through Disney films. The movie is about Owen and autism and the scary and exciting adventure of leaving home, but most of all it is about family. The Suskinds are one of the most loving, devoted, and compassionate families ever to appear on screen. It is a joy to spend time with them, whether through the book, the film, or an interview.

Owen has regressive autism, meaning that he developed along typical milestones until about age 2½, and then lost his ability to communicate and continue to develop. He loved to watch Disney animated films but barely spoke until age 6, when he suddenly told his parents that his brother Walt did not want to grow up, “like Peter Pan and Mowgli.” Owen was using Disney films to teach himself how people feel, behave, and communicate.

“They helped me communicate to find my place in the world and get my speech back,” Owen said.

Cornelia explained, “Movies are always the same. Every time you pop it in, every time you put in a VHS it will always be the same movie and the same language and the same characters instead of constantly changing, the way it does with people, even my expressions, with you and me sitting here. it’s always the same, very, very exaggerated, very colorful. And I think the combination of the music and animation together activating those parts of the brain were really key in tapping into how Owen was feeling but not able to express.”

When Owen was younger, he preferred hand-drawn animation “because it does expressions and feelings.” Now, he likes computer animation as well, perhaps because it has come closer to hand-drawn in its expressiveness and richness of detail. He has very strong views about sequels: “The only four theatrical animated sequels I love are ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ ‘Fievel Goes West,’ ‘Toy Story II’ and ‘Fantasia 2000’ and the only direct-to-video animated sequels I love are after the very first film of ‘The Land Before Time’ the animated film theatrical in 1988 were ‘The Land Before Time’ direct to video animated sequels. I would go all the way until the 10th one from late 2003, early 2004 and then conclude right there.” He loves to draw the sidekick characters, who have special meaning for him. His favorites are Sebastian from “The little Mermaid,” Iago from “Aladdin,” and Lucky Jack from “Home On The Range.”

Owen has his own YouTube channel, Owen’s Disney Club, where he discusses his favorite movies, displays Disney paraphernalia currently available for bid on eBay in a weekly “Finds of the Week” screencast, tours his personal collection of rare and hard-to-find Disney items, and interviews special guests.

Owen may be the only fan whose favorite Jimmy Stewart role is in “Fievel Goes West,” where his character says, “Just remember Fievel, one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills but if you ride yonder, eyes steady, head up and heart open, I think one day that you’ll find that you are the hero that you’ve been looking for.”

Owen pointed out that Stewart, like a surprising list of other stars, made his last performance in an animated film. Another favorite is Mary Wickes, whose last performance was as a gargoyle in “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Owen quoted her: “Life’s not a spectator sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, then you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya.”

Cornelia’s hopes for the movie are equally inspiring: “If we could share a little bit of a positive experience, not that obviously every minute in the film is a positive and our every minute has not been positive, but just the reality of it for people to get another image of what a person on the spectrum is like instead of ‘Rain Man,’ to see how fully realized Owen’s life is and that his wants and desires are every bit exactly the same as ours. I mean it’s extraordinary, it really is. So we’ve guided him for sure and try to teach him but he teaches us a lot more in a profound way.” And in this movie, they teach us all.

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