‘Life, Animated’ rings true for autistic children in the Lehigh Valley

 

The smiles Brittany Reiger gets from her children are few and far between.

The Quakertown mother’s three children — Benelli, 5, Adeline, 4, and Gunner, 2 — are all nonverbal and on the autism spectrum.

But start to sing “Let It Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and it’s a different story. Then they not only smile, they join in.

“I would have never cracked through without Disney,” Reiger said.
She’s among many Lehigh Valley parents who have discovered a way to connect with their autistic children through the world of Disney.

That connection is the basis of the film “Life, Animated,” a documentary directed and produced by Roger Ross Williams, an Easton native who wrote and directed the 2009 Oscar-winning short subject documentary, “Music by Prudence.” His current film follows the life of Owen Suskind, who did not speak until he and his family discovered a way to communicate through Disney animated films. “Life, Animated” is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at tonight’s ceremony, which airs on ABC.

Using children’s interests to advance their development is a key principle of intervention, said Rebecca Landa, director for the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland. “Disney gives us a platform for establishing a joint interest, a connection with the person with autism,” she said.

In “Life, Animated,” you learn that as a preschooler Owen would watch Disney films over and over, often rewinding scenes to watch repeatedly. All the while he continued to hole up inside himself, refusing to speak and make eye contact with his family. Then one day, while he was watching the 1989 film “The Little Mermaid,” his family listened as Owen was saying something that sounded like “juice.” As it turned out, Owen didn’t want juice, he was reciting a phrase from the movie: “Just your voice.”

Ron Suskind grabbed his son and said to him “just your voice,” which Owen then looked him in the face and repeated.

“It was the first time in a year he looked at me,” Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, says in the film.

Realizing they stumbled upon a way to communicate with their little boy, Owen’s parents also immersed themselves in the world of Disney. In the film, Ron Suskind recounts hiding under bed covers and using a hand puppet of the character Iago from “Aladdin” to have his first conversation with his son. “Owen, Owen,” Suskind says in the bird’s craggy voice. “How does it feel to be you?”

“Not good,” the child responds, “because I don’t have any friends.”

It’s a bittersweet moment as Suskind realizes his son is lonely and that he’d have to remain in character to continue the conversation. Suskind would come to understand why Owen opened up to Iago in a way he couldn’t with his parents, and why he had memorized the scripts of 50 Disney movies.

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