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Disney Characters Help Boy With Autism Find His Voice

When Owen Suskind suddenly stopped speaking, his parents were devastated. But Owen’s fascination with Disney characters changed everything.
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Ron and Cornelia Suskind had just moved to Washington, D.C., with their two young children when their 2-year-old son, Owen, suddenly stopped speaking.

He went from saying "I love you,” “Let's get ice cream,” or, “Where are my ninja turtles?" to one word: "juice."

The Suskinds searched for answers as their once fun-loving and chatty son continued drifting farther away -- no longer speaking or making eye contact.

His father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Wall Street Journal reporter, and his mother, also a journalist, searched relentlessly for answers.

After dozens of doctors’ appointments and meetings with specialists, the Suskinds finally had a diagnosis: autism.

Like many children with regressive autism, Owen appeared to be developing like any child his age until he suddenly displayed symptoms. Prior to his third birthday he lost his motor abilities, language skills, and the ability to sleep or eat.

Devastated by the diagnosis, but determined to reconnect with their son, the Suskinds began the long and painful process of trying to communicate with Owen. His only comfort was watching Disney movies, so the family became "scholars of Disney."

Courtesy of the Suskind family.

The hours they spent watching animated characters light up the screen became their only family activity. It would take years for them to discover that those movies and storylines were the key to ultimately rediscovering and reaching their son.

By the time Owen was about 6 years old, his family realized he wasn’t just mimicking the characters -- but that he actually understood and related to their emotions. By recognizing that, and embracing his passion for Disney movies, the Suskinds pulled Owen out of his shell. They spoke to him in Disney voices, incorporated the characters into his therapies and found parts of each movie that helped Owen understand what was going on in the world around him.

Now, at age 23, Owen is attending a transitional college program in Massachusetts where he met his girlfriend, who he's been dating for two years.

Ron Suskind chronicles the family's powerful journey into Owen's world -- and Owen's return to theirs -- in his new book, “Life, Animated.”

Researchers from MIT, Yale and Cambridge are now examining Owen’s emotional and social development via beloved characters, which has been dubbed "affinity therapy." They hope to find a systematic approach that may help others on the autism spectrum.