Reaching a Child with Autism through Disney

When Ron Suskind's son, Owen, was just shy of three years old, the once talkative child fell silent and turned inward. "Regressive autism," doctors told Suskind and his wife. The boy became unreachable – until one day, while watching The Little Mermaid, a glimmer of hope. Could the world of Disney serve as a portal for Owen to the world outside?

In a stunning, emotionally wrenching long-read published in this week's New York Times Magazine, Suskind, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, recounts the remarkable ways (and they are, let me emphasize, remarkable) that Disney movies have enabled him, his wife, and their eldest son, Walt, to connect with Owen. The piece opens with the story of the moment he and his wife first realized that Disney might serve as a means of reaching their son:

...we join him upstairs, all of us, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in November 1994. Owen is already on the bed, oblivious to our arrival, murmuring gibberish. . . . "Juicervose, juicervose." It is something we've been hearing for the past few weeks. Cornelia thinks maybe he wants more juice; but no, he refuses the sippy cup. "The Little Mermaid" is playing as we settle in, propping up pillows. We've all seen it at least a dozen times, but it's at one of the best parts: where Ursula the sea witch, an acerbic diva, sings her song of villainy, "Poor Unfortunate Souls," to the selfish mermaid, Ariel, setting up the part in which Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.

When the song is over, Owen lifts the remote. Hits rewind.

"Come on, Owen, just let it play!" Walt moans. But Owen goes back just 20 seconds or so, to the song's next-to-last stanza, with Ursula shouting:

Go ahead — make your choice!

I'm a very busy woman, and I haven't got all day.

It won't cost much, just your voice!

He does it again. Stop. Rewind. Play. And one more time. On the fourth pass, Cornelia whispers, "It's not 'juice.' " I barely hear her. "What?" "It's not 'juice.' It's 'just' . . . 'just your voice'!"

I grab Owen by the shoulders. "Just your voice! Is that what you're saying?!"

He looks right at me, our first real eye contact in a year. "Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!"

Walt starts to shout, "Owen's talking again!" A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy. "Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!" Owen keeps saying it, watching us shout and cheer. And then we're up, all of us, bouncing on the bed. Owen, too, singing it over and over — "Juicervose!" — as Cornelia, tears beginning to fall, whispers softly, "Thank God, he's in there."

We told his various therapists about what happened. Cornelia and I could think of little else. Owen reached out, if only for a moment, from his shut-in world. We spoke to our child.

The speech therapist tamped down our enthusiasm. Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, our trusted developmental pediatrician, did, too. He explained that echolalia is a common feature in kids like Owen. It's something babies sometimes do between 6 and 9 months, repeating consonants and vowels as they learn to turn babble into words. It's also something seen in people with developmental disabilities who can't speak. Just like what the term suggests, they echo, usually the last word or two of a sentence. "You're a very smart and pretty girl," a mother might say to her daughter. "Pretty girl," the child will respond, an echo. Do those kids know what the words mean, we pressed Rosenblatt. "Usually not," he said. "They may want to make a connection, which is hopeful," he added.

"They just repeat the last sound," I croaked. He nodded. Why, I persisted, in a last stab, would he be rewinding that one part for weeks, maybe longer, and choose that phrase from so many in an 83-minute movie? Rosenblatt shrugged. No way of knowing.

But it doesn't end there. The piece goes on to reveal that Owen's connection to Disney movies extends far beyond a meaningless repetition of words. I won't spoil it for you here, because it's something you really must read for yourself, but I will say that the initial realization involves an Iago puppet (from Aladdin) and Suskind doing his best Gilbert Gottfried impression.

Go read it. Now. Trust us – this is one you don't want to pass up.