Now imagine what it would be like if, one day, you stopped being able to communicate with anyone. And you were only three years old.
That’s the story at the heart of Life, Animated.
When Owen Suskind was just a child, he slipped away from his parents, Ron and Cornelia Suskind—he began to lose his speech, his gross- and fine-motor skills and his social graces. In his place, autism.
Ron and Cornelia did what they could to communicate and help Owen heal, but for literally years, it was nearly impossible.
It’s like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping.
Ron’s heartbreaking recollection of the family’s struggles tugged at my heartstrings, as did Owen’s own internal struggle to find his voice again (he amusingly but also appropriately calls that time “the glop”) and rejoin the devoted family who clearly love him so much.
And that’s where Disney comes in. Because like so many of us, Owen learned how to understand his world from the basic characters, exaggerated emotions and giant gestures of Walt Disney’s animated classics. And he held on to them. And he eventually started using them to process his surroundings, traverse society and communicate with the people around him.
By watching The Lion King, Owen learned that he had to grow up and do things on his own. By watching Bambi, Owen works through the emotions of missing his mother on his first night in his own apartment. And when his girlfriend breaks up with him, he deals with his grief by commiserating with Ariel as she watches Eric sail off to marry Ursula.
They’re all victories—victories those of us without a disorder on the spectrum may take for granted. But they’re victories all the same, and Owen’s joy (and his parents’ joy) over them makes this movie as sweet as it is sad. All told, the documentary is incredibly moving and smartly educational, using original animation to offer a unique and close-in look at what it’s like to live with autism. I’d say it’s a must-see for anyone with a special-needs child, anyone who loves Disney or even anyone who’s interested in the human condition.
Life, Animated was inspired by the book of the same name, written by Owen’s father, Ron Suskind. I first heard about Owen’s story on an exceptional episode of RadioLab, one of my favorite podcasts. It’s worth a listen—and it won’t spoil the movie, should you decide to see it. To that end, the documentary opened in select theatres in New York and Los Angeles on June 1 and will premiere across the country throughout July and August. Click here to view the film’s trailer and find out when/where it’ll be playing in your area.
Disclosure: I received a free digital screener of this film free of charge via The Orchard, the company distributing the film. The opinions expressed above are my own and are based on my own experience.