Over Christmas I was talking about Carebox with family and the story of Owen Suskind came up. Featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in December, Owen is a man of 25, who as a toddler was chatty and sociable but suddenly stopped speaking.
Owen disappeared into his shell: he couldn’t focus and even found it difficult to walk. He was eventually diagnosed with regressive autism.
His parents describe the first few months after diagnosis as the worst time in their lives. They feared that Owen would never speak and that they would be taking care of him for his entire life. His speach was like gibberish with the occasional movie phrase thrown in and he seemed disengaged from the world around him. His parents constantly wondered what was going on in his head and worried about his future.
However Owen mastered the remote control for the family’s video recorder and indulged in his obsession – watching Disney films over and over again. He often rewound the same scene repeatedly. Watching a video together was one of the few activities that the whole family could share and enjoy.
Professional advisers advised against Owen’s repetitive viewing habit, believing it restricted his development and contributed to his isolation. In response his parents bergan to limit his screen time and even put padlocks on the TV and video in order to ration his viewing time and instead concentrated on speech therapy. By six, Owen could string a few words together to form simple sentences but this was through lots of prompting.
The next stage of Owen’s development took the family on an extraordinary journey of discovery. In this clip Owen and his father speak openly about how Disney films helped him to speak once again.
Owen is now 25 and things have improved beyond everyone’s expectations: he has two jobs – at a toy store and a local cinema – and lives independently in sheltered accommodation. He says it’s largely thanks to Disney’s classic animated films which helped him find his place in the world.
Like so many people with autism, Owen has an ‘affinity’, in his case, a deep connection to the Disney movies he’s watched countless times to make sense of an often-bewildering world. His parents throught he was one in a million, but when they shared their story they learned that he was rather one among millions – people with autism all over the world with affinities from movies to maps. So was born the term ‘affinity therapy’ which takes one area of interest, like animated movies, and uses that to connect with a person living with autism. These affinities, properly handled, are more of a pathway than prison.
Owen’s father wrote a book about their experience and this was recently adapted into a film called ‘Life, Animated’ released in the UK this year. You can find out about the film here.