'Life Animated' Documentary Tells Story of Man With Autism Who Used Disney to Connect


While there has been plenty of controversy surrounding the Tribeca Film Festival this year, one film about autism is garnering praise.

Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote “Life Animated: a Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” worked with acclaimed director Roger Ross Williams and producer Amy Goldman to make a documentary based on his book. The story follows Suskind’s son, Owen, who has autism, and has been able to connect with the world through Disney movies.

Owen Suskind, now 24, didn’t speak for years, but he memorized dozens of Disney movies and “turned them into a language to express love and loss, kinship, brotherhood,” according to the film’s website.

In a clip from the film, Ron Suskind reveals the first conversation he ever had with his son.

“I see Owen on the bed, flipping through a Disney book,” he said in the video below. “I see Iago, the puppet [the parrot from Aladdin]. I grab the puppet; I pull it up to my elbow. … And Owen turns to the puppet. … and I say to him, ‘Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?’”

His replied stunned Suskind: “Not good because I don’t have any friends.” Though emotional, Suskind was determined to carry on the conversation with his then 6-year-old, so he stayed in character and kept asking questions. At the end of the conversation, Owen Suskind got into character as Jafar.


The Suskind family, who now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, appeared on The Meredith Vieira Show in Jan. 2015 to promote the book, and where Ron Suskind recalled his reaction. “He’s speaking a Disney dialogue!” he’d exclaimed. “That was the breakthrough.”

The parents continued to use animated films as a way to communicate with their son, and they even coined the term “affinity therapy” to describe the method, according to a 2014 article Suskind published on Autism Speaks’ blog.

Owen Suskind currently works at a local movie theater and has his own apartment, according to ABC 7 WKBW Buffalo. Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech language pathologist who worked with the young man to help prepare him for living independently, said animated films were an integral part of his therapy. “A way to get Owen to learn is really by focusing a lot of learning around the thing he’s going to pay attention to and actually seeking to learn on his own, which is Disney,” she told the local news site.

The film will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23 and released later this year.





The Moment I Felt I Chose the Right Therapy for My Son With Autism


I never imagined we would find a second home at an applied behavior analysis clinic. From the outside it looks like any other office. But inside it’s filled with so much love and laughter.

There are no superheroes or miracle workers, but inside you will find good people with good intentions.

Some are still in college, and others have a little more experience under their belts. One with the insight and love only a sister could understand. A boss who flies to the other side of the word to help open clinics, while still helping every parent who walks through his doors.

They share in the victories, the tears. They shorten holidays with their own families to be with my child and countless others.

The clinic becomes like a second home. 

A place where a little boy learns to ride a bike with no training wheels.

Or tie his shoes “all by myself, Mommy!”

Support that my son relies on — that I rely on. They help him navigate a world that looks different through his eyes and isn’t always kind to people like him.

There’s so much hope in those few rooms. Landon turns 6 tomorrow! I can’t begin to tell you the gains he’s made! Like every kid, he wanted that special cake.

A “Henry Hugglemonster” cake was nowhere to be found, so in steps Landon’s therapist to ensure his special day is a little more special. She not only found someone to make the cake, but insisted on paying for it!

“It’s my birthday present to him and you. I can’t wait to see his reaction,” she said.

cake decorated to look like henry hugglemonster cartoon
Landon’s Henry Hugglemonster cake.

I know it’s just a cake and the world wouldn’t end without it. It warms my heart and reconfirms we’ve made the right choice for our son. As a parent of a child with autism, my days and nights can be filled with worry.

Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right thing?

Did I make the right choice by going this route?

What does the future hold? Will others see him as I do?

But tomorrow those thoughts are pushed aside and replaced with a little boy’s birthday party!

With a very special cake.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


To Those Who Give My Parents and Sister With Autism 'That Look'


I know you are out there. And don’t fear: you’re not alone. I see the looks you give my parents as they let one of my sister’s “rude” comments slide. I see the way you purse your lips when my slightly overweight sister orders the cheese fries instead of the salad with dressing on the side. I can sense the internal swell of pride you feel as you pity us for our ignorance because, surely, if you were her parent, Kate* would wipe that scowl off her face. If you were her parent, surely those inappropriate comments would have stopped long ago. If you were her parent, surely today Kate would be a beacon of health and kale-fed wellness. 

It’s hard for me to find the courage to tell you these things, since you’ve been such a constant presence in my life. You were there on our family trips to the zoo, as my parents were forced to use a leash and harness for my sister’s safety. You were there on our trips to the toy store many years ago, silently cocking your eyebrows as my sister screamed and pounded the floor while my mother helplessly watched from the sidelines. 

But there were also times you weren’t there. 

You weren’t there when my mother, a retired special-education teacher, learned my sister has autism.

You weren’t there before Kate discovered French fries, when the doctors almost had to put a feeding tube in because she would throw up everything we tried to feed her. 

You weren’t there when, for the first five years of her life, my parents faithfully brought Kate to American Sign Language classes because they were told she would never learn to speak; and you weren’t there when she defied the odds. 

You weren’t there on the cramped middle school bus, when every single person put their hand on the empty seat next to them and told my sister that no, she couldn’t sit with them. You weren’t there when my sister realized she didn’t have friends.

I realize there is nothing I can do to make you leave. You probably don’t even realize who you are. But recently, it’s hit me that one day I will be the likely subject of your critical stares. I’ve always known one day, caring for my sister would be part of my job description. I will most likely be her caretaker. And honestly, I worry that I won’t do it well. Selfishly, I often worry about my future and how I will juggle a career, children and my sister’s needs.

But then I remember that, without Kate, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. She taught me to be patient, tolerant and understanding. For every minute of stress we’ve faced, there have been 10 of laughter and joy. 

So, wherever you are, I ask that you sit back for a moment and ask yourself if, really, you would “handle things differently.” Yes, Kate, like all of us, has her flaws, but, for all those moments you weren’t there, she was. The remarkable thing about human nature is that, despite overwhelming belief to the contrary, we have the power take what the universe dishes out, and we become stronger for it. 



*Name changed for privacy

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


Beth Hiatt Writes 'Let's Talk About Autism' Article for School Magazine


Beth Hiatt, 13, is the co-editor of her school’s magazine, and she recently wrote an article called “Let’s Talk About Autism” for the publication explaining how autism affects her daily life — and how she hopes to change the public’s perception of people on the spectrum.

After the piece was published, her mother, Beccy Hiatt, shared the unedited article with the popular Facebook community page and website, Autistic Not Weird, where it was reposted on Monday.

“If a friend/relative has autism, I really hope this article makes others understand things from their perspective,” Beth, from Cornwall, England, told the The Mighty.

In the article, Beth explains what sensory overload is like for her, and how she often feels misunderstood by others. Take a look:

Let’s Talk About Autism

I have autism. And I’m not ashamed to admit that.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to you, as the only autism you may know of being exposed to have is the low-functioning, severe, non-verbal kind.
I do not have low-functioning autism. I am a high-functioning autistic. There’s a whole spectrum of autism, (that’s why its full name is autism spectrum disorder) and no two people with autism are the same. Those with high-functioning autism/mild autism/Asperger’s syndrome do indeed face extremely different issues to those with low functioning autism, but there are similar issues affecting the majority of the spectrum that most people do not know.

Imagine having all five senses multiplied by one hundred. Many people with autism, myself included, have never experienced complete silence. We always hear the humming of the lights, or a bird outside, or even the sound of our own breath. We always hear this loud and clear, even in noise-filled crowded room. We feel labels in our clothes for the entirety of the day if they are not cut out, some smells and tastes make us literally unable to breathe. After this all gets too much (trust me, this usually doesn’t take too long for most) we can experience something called sensory overload. If visible to others, it probably looks like a tantrum (If you were wondering, I haven’t experienced full-blown sensory overload in years, but it still stands. You just learn how to repress it). However, we are not waiting to see if others respond. We want to get out of there as quick as possible, and we certainly don’t need judgement from others. I know our behaviours may seem self-injurious to those around us and it may seem funny to see a child who is not two kicking off and screaming, but who are you to judge? You have absolutely no idea what it is like.

Imagine being seen as rude when you do not get the gist of social norms. Most people are born with a general understanding but just need to be reminded to mind their P’s and Q’s from time to time. Usually, they are well-mannered by the age of four or so. Well… we are all still learning, whether we are eight or eighty. We do try our hardest to think before we speak, but we slip up quite a lot. Sure, it’s funny and cute when a three year old says something they shouldn’t, but when a nine year old accidently starts an argument between their family after they repeat something their parents muttered under their breath (Guess who did that, kids!), you’re seen as rude and inconsiderate…

Imagine struggling to catch a ball, hold a pen or do anything that involves fine or gross motor skills. We are the children that run with a gait, who are always picked last for the team, whose handwriting ranges from scruffy to illegible. The worst thing is, we are not often given help for this. As autism is known as an invisible disability, people think we are not trying hard enough, children laugh at our mishaps, we feel left out and like a failure on many occasions.

Although after reading this article autism may seem like a terrible thing to have that will ruin your entire life, don’t be fooled! All of the best scientists (Einstein, Edison, etc.) that changed our world and way of thinking drastically were rumored to have autism, along with such famous faces as Daryl Hannah, Tim Burton and the legendary Temple Grandin. We can go on to do the most amazing things if our self-esteem isn’t shattered.

Autism has no known cause and no known cure, but there is somebody who can make life easier for those who are diagnosed.

It’s you.

Autism Awareness Day is coming up on April 2nd, and you will probably be told to wear blue to make people more aware, but I want you to do more than that. Make every day autism awareness day. Try to make a safe space if somebody with autism is on edge at a party. Gently nudge them if they say something wrong. Pick them for your team if playing sports. Even smiling and saying hello in the corridor. Small gestures matter. Often, they can speak louder than words ever could. Please, be autism aware.

Thank you.

“I did not expect the extensive amount of likes and shares my piece would get, along with comments such as ‘enlightening,’ ‘insightful,’ ‘I have learnt so much from this’ and ‘this needs to be posted in all school magazines,’” Beth told The Mighty. “Of course I didn’t think this was going to happen!”

Chris Bonnello, founder of Autistic Not Weird (and a Mighty contributor), said about a month ago he began collecting “Awesome Stories” to counterbalance the negativity that’s so often associated with autism. Once a day, he features a post from a follower who is proud of something they or an autistic relative has done.

“When I read Beth’s piece I was amazed at how eloquently and confidently she wrote – much more so than me at 13,” he told The Mighty, “and I knew beyond doubt it would have a positive impact on autism awareness.”

Today’s “Awesome Story”- here’s something I love. ???? Beth, aged 13, wrote this article about autism for her school… Posted by Autistic Not Weird on Monday, March 28, 2016
  Lead image via ThinkStock


How Our Son Responded When We Told Him About His Autism Diagnosis


Our son is fully aware of his autism diagnosis and has been for years. As we’ve learned and he’s learned, we’ve made a habit of sharing our knowledge together as much as possible (and as appropriate).

After we received his diagnosis, we considered how to tell him, and while we were still digesting the news, one of my colleagues arranged a lunch date with me, herself and her adult son on the spectrum.

When talking about how to tell our son about the diagnosis, his advice was: Don’t wait.

We found ourselves stumbling into the conversation only six weeks after we received the diagnosis.

My husband and I were not yet ready to have the discussion, but it became clear that our son needed to know after he announced he “was stupid” because he “kept getting sent out of the classroom” because he “couldn’t do the work.”

I hated his coming to that heartbreaking conclusion. The conversation had to take place right away because our child was in pain and we needed to do something about it.

I think we did pretty well at not using too many technical terms, and we emphasized all the good things that came with the way his brain is put together.

We were specific, as much as we could be in the early stages of our understanding, about the gifts and challenges he experienced.

We also talked about how we would work as a team on his challenges, giving him tools and strategies to eventually manage them on his own.We talked about his strengths, about people on television or famous people who also have autism and the successes they have experienced. He liked the idea that Einstein may have had autism.

Most importantly, he seemed relieved to know his struggles at school weren’t because he lacked something and instead stemmed from coming at things from a different direction.

It has been four years almost to the day since that talk, and when I prepared to write this article I asked him what he remembered of the conversation.

“Nothing,” he answered. “It is like I have always known that I had autism.” I like to think that means we did our job well.

And for us the conversation doesn’t really end. Like all important parent-child conversations, it isn’t a sit-down-one-weekend-and-you’re-done kind of thing.

As he grows and his developmental understanding becomes more sophisticated, with every challenge and every success, we try to weave it all into a cohesive tapestry that makes sense to him.

Our goal is 360-degree knowledge of himself that is based in self-love and constantly-reinforced total acceptance.

Follow this journey on Autism Mom.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


7 Things Parents of Kids With Autism Want Teachers to Know


When I’m on Facebook talking to people, one of the topics that keeps coming up is teachers and how many don’t understand children with autism. I don’t want to paint a negative picture of teachers, because most of the time they’re great, but every now and then, misunderstandings happen and mistakes are made.

So I asked this question in a Facebook post:

What, in your opinion, are the most important things a teacher should know about autism?

Here are the seven most-liked comments.

1. “Understand that ‘high functioning’ kids can hide their ‘symptoms,’ but need just as much support.” — Hattie Hodkin

People used to say to me that they would forget I was autistic because of how well I hid my traits, but they were reminded on my bad days. The signs that a day or situation is challenging for a child can be subtle. We need to look for these subtleties and teach teachers what to look for, too.

Sometimes we miss women on the spectrum, as they may be pressured by society’s expectations to hide their many traits. When they appear very anxious, people often mistake it as mental illness instead of recognizing it as a part of autism.

2. “I think they need to know that some children with ‘high functioning’ autism struggle with coming to them and saying ‘I need help.'” — Sarah Forrester

I had a parent tell me their child was coming home stressing about school work. They didn’t know what to do or didn’t understand the wording of the tasks. When faced with tasks they don’t understand, autistic people can get confused and anxious. Then our imaginations are impaired by stress, and the concept, in that moment, to solve the problem doesn’t exist.

3. “Listen to the parent of the ‘high functioning’ child [when they say] they are not being naughty. Kicking arms and legs out is a sign of excitement/anxiety… Teachers need to be educated, but the key thing is to listen to the parent or carer of the child, as we know them best.” — Adama-cherry Devill

I believe that all schools should have fidget toys. The child with autism can still listen to you while holding the fidget toys. If I was a teacher, I would much rather have a child holding a Tangle than swinging their arms and legs around.

4. “Get some facts. Learn about autism, get more training and don’t tell my son to look up at you.” — Helen Todd

I’d quite like everyone to do this — not just teachers but all the other professionals who work with people who have autism.

5. “I would love my son’s teacher to understand the absolute necessity to keep to a timetable/schedule. He depends on it. To appreciate how clever he is, and to give him more advanced work when he needs it. To address him directly, and understand if the teacher speaks to the class generally, my son may not understand she means him as well!” — Kerry Burton

Explain everything in layman’s terms: simple, direct and jargon-free. Autistic people often take things very literally. Avoid metaphors, similes and idioms.

6. “More understanding, giving your child time to process what has been said rather than pushing for an immediate answer. [My son] always needs a good few seconds to process conversations. Teachers need more patience.” — Kate Taylor

Autistic brains often struggle to do multiple tasks at the same time. When we are asked a question we have to:

  • Take in the words, know what they are.
  • Generate the meaning of the question
  • Then find the answer.

That’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, so let’s be patient and give them a moment to answer.

7. “Don’t ask a child to look at [you], [A lack of eye contact does not mean they aren’t listening]. Really winds me up, that.” — Joanne Charlton

Eye contact is very uncomfortable for me. If a teacher says,”Look at me!” I just look at his forehead. But if you’re a teacher say, “Look this way” — It’s a lot nicer. A child with autism who isn’t looking is probably still listening.

Those are my most popular responses. Teachers, please take note!

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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