Life, Animated – Best Documentary Nominee Academy Awards

“Therapists and educators have traditionally tried to suppress or modulate a child’s special interest, or use it as a tool for behavior modification: Keep your hands still and stop flapping, and you will get to watch a Star Wars clip; complete your homework or no Harry Potter. But what if these obsessions themselves can be turned into pathways to growth? What if these intellectual cul-de-sacs can open up worlds? That is the idea explored in the film Life, Animated, a contender for the Academy Award for Best Documentary this Sunday night.” Scientific American

“What does it mean to be autistic?” Amy Goodman

“It means you have special talents and skills inside you,” Owen Suskind

“What are those talents?” Amy Goodman

“Being a good artist, and a piano player, and a good writer, author, and a storyteller, and a possibly good author and a great problem solver?” Owen Suskind

“So each person is an individual?” Amy Goodman

“Yes,” Owen Suskind.

“What is your special talent?” Amy Goodman

“Drawing animation especially from Disney and Disney-Pixar,” Owen Suskind

Here is the interview with Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, and Roger Ross Williams on Democracy Now.

Two years ago I wrote a blog about Ron Suskind’s book Life, Animated (book review below). His message is to find your child’s passion.

Last night I had the pleasure to hear Ron Suskind through the Open Mind Series at UCLA presented by Friends of the Semel Institute. Ron is a Pulitzer prize journalist and author of the new book Life, Animated which chronicles his twenty-year journey with his Autistic son Owen.

Susan Osborne of the visionary nonprofit Autism Unites gave me a ticket to the VIP party. This was fortuitous because, not only did I get to meet Ron who signed my copy of his book (which I bought at the Fallbrook library used book store last week – SCORE!), I found a new recruit for the Autism Unveiled project.


Ben’s passion is the Beatles and music. He has recorded all the background vocals and instruments to over 200 Beatles songs! His mom Susan Rubiny has written a book Natural Genius: The Gifts of Aspergers (Jessica-Kingsley Publishers).

The event started with an animated film by Exceptional Minds the school that trains autistic adults to master Adobe products. The film was an animation of one of Owen Suskind’s favorite characters, Simba, from the Lion King. At the end of the film we get a glimpse of Ron and Owen.

We watch a clip from the movie. It seems Owen’s talent is to embody all the emotions, personalities, and voices of the many, many Disney animated film characters. Through this he communicates profound emotions and responds to every-day life occurrences. It would be the equivalent of a disciple of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell mastering all the archetypes and knowing exactly which one to embody at the correct moment.

This is a video of Owen doing voices (FanDubs) while looking for Disney characters on Ebay.

To say the lecture was inspiring would be an understatement. Ron shared his journey about how he learned to communicate with Owen through Disney dialogue. During the day he was a journalist. At night the basement sessions with Owen were the family’s means of communication. Through the basement sessions the family role-played Disney and Owen expressed his inner feelings and his unique personality. Owen later began drawing Disney characters. One day his dad found 100 drawings in a sketch book. None of them were heroes; they were all sidekicks. The last page said “I’m the protektor of the sidekicks.”

Through this, Ron and his wife Cornelia gained an insight into Owen’s mind. After being forced out of an LD school, Owen saw himself as a sidekick and not the hero of his own journey. Later, Owen told his dad the only hero in the house was his brother Walt. Ron touches on the bonds of siblings and how as parents we may create stories for the siblings that may not be true. Siblings can be overwhelmed and lost in a family which has become Autism Central.

The lecture ended with a beautiful film clip of Ron’s new documentary Life, Animated. In this clip we can hear Owen’s voice become the embodiment of the Disney character who he is communicating through – Owen is the keeper for all the stories of Disney. I think of the book The Giver and how the Receiver received all the emotions and experiences of history and how painful that was.

Ron’s message is simple. Find ways to communicate to your child through their passion. Don’t try to normalize your child.

I whispered to Susan – “I wish all behaviorists and physicians could hear this lecture.” She nodded. The lecture was followed by a genetic researcher at UCLA who decided to not show all his slides nor focus on details about curing autism. He said there are over 1,000 genes implicated in “autism disorders.” (Susan and I would like it to be called something other than a disorder). I wrote in my notebook – “Why aren’t they focusing on something really important like finding the genetic components of bullying and eliminating that?”

Autism isn’t a disease, it’s determined by observation of behavior. Bullying isn’t a disease; a bully is determined by his behavior. it’s not been classified but I’ve observed lots of bullying behaviors! I’m sure if the NIH or NIMH had a billion dollars of research money at its disposal we could find the 1,000 genes that causes bullying and eliminate them from our gene pool. It would probably be a lot easier to eliminate than autism.

A UCLA behaviorist was next to speak after the genetic researcher. She talked about best practices in ABA interventions. For many in the autism world, ABA is becoming a dirty word (so sorry ABA practitioners – Lovaas gave it a bad rap. Kevin actually has benefited dramatically from PRT, an ABA therapy, which is child-centered).

“Follow your child’s passion,” should be added to best practices for educators and those working in the autism community. As I’ve witnessed through the Autism Unveiled project which will start on February 18 and run through April 2, World Autism Day, many autistic people are living their passions. We should all live our passions. Ron has created a platform The Autism Affinities Project. (I’m grateful there are no TM signs on his project).

As one visitor to the Life, Animated Facebook page wrote, affinity therapy has a basis in modern-day psychology. “RD Laing and then Milton Erickson, taught how entering the internal reality of those we are trying to reach – no matter the situation, how mundane, serious or seemingly completely bizarre – unlocks the door to transformation.”

Ron went on to say he was invited to the United Nations World Autism Day event last year. He engaged a group of Autistic people wearing the Light it Up Blue shirts in a Disney Song. (I’ll not speak my politically incorrect comment about what I think about the Light It Up Blue campaign and how that organization is focusing on genetic research and not helping those living on the spectrum). I’m missing the point – the song brought the icy people of the U.N. to tears! Good work Ron – we need to thaw some ice.

Before the lecture, Ron signed my copy of his book. “A hero,” he scribbled. That’s hopeful but I think I’m a sidekick too, and I’m happy with that role. Kevin has lead us to new adventures in the last year. As wise Owen says, “A sidekick helps the hero fulfill his destiny.”

And BTW, Kevin watched the Disney movie Toy Story so many times as a toddler that the embedded phantom silhouette of Woody could be seen walking across our TV screen at random times when watching other shows.

I highly recommend Ron’s book Life, Animated. A joy to read good writing. YAY, we have a journalist who is getting a positive message about autism out there. More importantly, Owen is a new spokesperson for the sidekicks of this world.


Debra Muzikar is co-founder of the Art of Autism nonprofit.

4 replies on “Life, Animated – Best Documentary Nominee Academy Awards”
  1. says: NameElaine

    Great to share such an inspirational evening with you, Debra. Thank you for capturing the essence of Ron’s talk — Honoring individual’s passion. And it’s all about Love.

  2. Message We all can learn so much from the wisdom of this young man. We would all benefit from finding our passions, enlivening and living them! Thank you Debbie for all of these wise, hope-inducing, perspective-expanding stories!

  3. says: keri

    Inspired by the film, the interview by Amy, and this article.

    While there are many terms, words, and feelings in the interview that will surely cause a stir in todays autism climate, I am appreciating the intentions shared. My take-away… is to focus on attributes and strengths; move toward whatever hopeful communication works best for each individual; and never lose sight of the possibilities in things we may not be able to see or hear in autism.

    I am proud and lucky as heck to know my son, and so many autistic individuals – both now and in the past – who have changed me for the better forever.

    Well done, Owen, Ron, Cornelia, Roger, Amy and Debra in the collective telling of this autsome story.

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