Life Animated: A Coming-Of-Age Story about A Boy With Autism

March 09, 2017
Last month, five documentary films were nominated for an Academy Award. These included films about refugees, the OJ Simpson Trial, the civil rights movement, race and the prison system – and autism. Though the film about autism – “Life Animated” – did not win, it received significant praise and won several other awards including Best Director for a Documentary and the Audience Award, both at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Life Animated” is a coming-of-age story about a boy with autism, Owen Suskind, who uses animated Disney films to communicate and understand the world around him. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, the film is based on a book by Ron Suskind, Owen’s father and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

The Suskind’s story will be familiar to those who have a child with autism: sometime after Owen’s third birthday, he started to act differently. He was inconsolable and stopped speaking or looking people in the eyes. The only thing that seemed to calm him was watching animated Disney films. The diagnosis was autism. Ron and his wife, Cordelia, begin to navigate this new reality for their youngest child fearing he will never speak again.

But the focus of the story is not this transformation – but another, which happens later and gives the family hope. When Owen is 6 years old, he notices his older brother Walt having a meltdown at a birthday party. Owen looks right at his parents and says: “Walter doesn’t want to grow up like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” It is the first complex sentence he has ever uttered. Later, experimenting, Owen’s dad Ron uses an Iago puppet, from Disney’s “Aladdin,” to speak to Owen – and Owen responds.

This begins the Suskind family’s long, slow journey to communicating with their son. With the support of teachers and therapists, the Suskind family uses Disney material as a way to help Owen engage with them and others, and make sense of the world. Along the way, they begin to realize that the affinity Owen has for Disney films is not so different from other autistic children’s affinities, all of which seem to help them navigate the world.

The story is more than just Owen’s story – it is a story about the entire family. From The New York Times review of the book:

“Mr. Suskind often displays virtuosity in capturing the intimate realities of life in a household dominated by autism, where the disorder shapes the life of every family member. Walt has turned himself into ‘a junior adult at 7,’ his typically developing strengths celebrated as almost magical, heroic powers. Taking care of Owen gives his parents ‘wholeness and a sense of worth,’ rewards that sometimes fuel a bizarre competition between them that Mr. Suskind calls the Sacrifice Games. ‘No prize money attached,’ he writes. ‘But the deification points are redeemable for periodic gifts and regular trips to the moral high ground.’”

The film shows Owen as a young adult and one who has made massive progress. However, unlike what one might expect from a Disney film, there is no traditional happy ending. Not all of the Suskind family’s dreams for Owen – or his dreams for himself – can come true. But that does not diminish the joy at all that Owen has been able to achieve, and all the family thinks might be possible. Owen’s mom Cordelia says in the film, “My hope is that he is independent enough to be able to grow older on his own.”

For families with children with autism, the film is a must watch. PROaupair Area Director Jane Smith took five of her area’s professional au pairs to see a screening and they stayed after to listen to a discussion group of 15 parents with autistic children. After seeing the film, Jane said:

“This is an amazing documentary about one child and his autistic life. The disparity between what we want for our children and what they might achieve can be especially painful for parents of autistic children. As a parent hearing the mom say, “It’s like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping’ broke my heart and captured my heart. If you are touched by autism, see this documentary. And, if you are not touched by autism…see it as well…knowledge is power!”

If the film is not playing in a theater near you, you can rent it on both YouTube and Amazon for under $5. For more information about the film, or to watch a preview, visit the Life Animated documentary website. For more information about Owen’s family and their new projects, visit the Life Animated blog, which shares information about a new online project for children with special affinities.