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Compassion and awareness are the first steps in understanding autism

— Last month, I read an article in The New York Times entitled “Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney,” by Ron Suskind (nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/reaching-my-autistic-son-through-disney.html?_r=0). As the title suggests, the article chronicles Suskind’s experience with his son, Owen, a lover of Disney movies who was diagnosed with autism. At the time of his diagnosis, Owen, 3 years old, was non-verbal. But through memorizing the dialogue and inflections from the various Disney characters in the movies he loved, over the course of a number of years, he created his own language that he used for communicating and connecting with others. As a parent of a child with special needs, I found his story to be moving and very inspirational. The article is an excerpt from Suskind’s book that was released this month called “Life, Animated.” The timing seemed particularly apt since April is Autism Awareness Month in New York.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder,” meaning it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees (Autismspeaks.org/what-autism/facts-about-autism). Some people, like Owen, are completely non-verbal, while others are very high-functioning and communicative — which is how, partially thanks to Disney movies, a devoted family and a variety of specialists, Owen is today.

In Owen’s case, he was developing normally, but suddenly, at the age of 3, developed many of the signs of autism; he became shut off from the world. He was diagnosed specifically with regressive autism. Suskind and his wife noticed that Owen loved watching Disney Movies; he would sit and watch them for hours, oftentimes rewinding and re-watching certain scenes over and over again. They were working with a variety of specialists for Owen, and nobody saw a particular problem with his movie-watching. And, as it turns out, Owen was memorizing these movies and learning how to communicate again.

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