One of the perks of flying a lot is that on some planes I get to watch movies, and I look for unusual movies I’ve not seen before. On my last flight, I watched a movie called “Life, Animated” and was so amazed by it. This is a documentary about the life of Owen Susskind, a young autistic man whose language and social skills began to deteriorate when he was about 3 years old. His language became garbled and the boy who jabbered and laughed with his family went away.
Ron Susskind, Owen’s father, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and wrote a book by the same name about the journey of his son and their entire family through the years after a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder. The word autism was also added, which scared the family. The movie is shown in a mix of home movies, documentary film, and animation that reflect Owen’s inner world. The journey from 3 to 23 years old is told in flashbacks and with such great empathy. One film reviewer said it was “powerful and emotional without being manipulative”, and that it was “deeply inspiring without meaning to be.” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/life-animated-2016).
Disney animated movies are Owen’s favorite activity. In one scene, Owen says it was by reading the credits that he taught himself to read. Owen would say something to his family over and over, but they could not understand him. In a scene from “The Little Mermaid” Ariel gives up her voice to become human, and it is that scene that Owen used to say to his parents “just lost my voice.” They realize this is what he was saying, but could not understand until Owen rewound the scene several times and then uttered his words.
Over the years of my work with The Mandt System, Inc. I have had the joy and honor of meeting families and their children who were autistic. The movie I saw was reflective of their struggles and gives hope to the parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and the friends of people who take life’s journey on an autistic path. While Owen Susskind is a unique person, with a unique family history, the commonalities between Owen and a young man I met recently in Melbourne, Australia are there. I could hear, in Owen’s speech patterns, similar speech patterns in this man.
What was termed “sing-song arrhythmia” and “metaphorical speech” was actually a learned pattern of speech from his family. When this man was a child, his parents sang to him to communicate instructions, ask questions, and did so in a way that appeared to be fun for their child. This young man now sings his answers to questions, and rather than traditional speech therapy I suggested that a music therapist be used to start where this man is and guide him, over time, to a speech pattern more understandable by non-autistic persons.
Each autistic person has a unique story, just as each human being has a unique story. Disney movies become the bridge that empower Owen and his family to communicate with each other and build pathways that empower them to be a family again. What this movie did was to reinforce my approach of working with people where they are, using how they speak and what they love, as beginning points for contact. Meeting people where they are and using their strengths to meet their needs is what Positive Behavior Support is all about, and what we teach in The Mandt System®. What are called obsessions are, in reality, points of contact that offer a common language to connect autistics and the people who love them. You meet people where they are, and use their strengths as ways to build a future, together.
Near the end of the movie, Owen is invited to speak at a gathering of autistics in France. He teaches himself a few words of French, and then speaks for a few minutes. He says that people think autistic people don’t want relationships, and that this is wrong. His voice is strong, his spirit even stronger and the hope that comes from this film strongest of all.
As you read this you may wonder why I am using the word “autistic” and not “person with autism.” Most advocates see themselves as autistic it the same way that a person may say “I am Italian” or “I am Black.” These are identities that shape who we are, while diseases and disabilities affect what we do. The term “self advocate” is also not used, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a self-advocate, he was an advocate for his people and for all people. In the same way, Owen advocates not just for himself, but for all autistic persons. There is much to learn from this movie, and I highly recommend it!
Bob Bowen – Senior Adjunct Faculty