The Mighty Logo

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

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

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.


Originally published: March 30, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home