Then, a year later, Owen broke his silence. While watching The Little Mermaid, he said, “Just your voice.” Ariel had lost her voice, just like Owen. And that was enough to give Ron and Cornelia the first clue that Owen understood the world through Disney films. Through these movies, they could communicate and connect with their son, drawing parallels between real life and the simple plotlines of the animated classics. Disney set an example of social cues, conversations, and expression that Owen eagerly followed. Ron and Cornelia had their son back.
In 2014, Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind published a book called Life, Animated about raising what he calls a “differently abled” child. Now, that book is a movie making its rounds at film festivals—to great praise—and opening in theaters July 1.
Life, Animated is a gorgeous story. Gorgeous in theme and gorgeously told, with illustrations, home videos, Disney clips, and daily scenes pieced together into a plot that is funny, heartbreaking, and heartening at once. Take this clip, the very first conversation between a father and his 6-year-old son after Owen made a breakthrough, vocalizing the uncertainty of growing up. Ron is in character as Iago the parrot from Aladdin:
Life, Animated is about more than the foggy confusion of autism. It’s about growing up, because that’s what Owen does, despite his wish to be a Peter Pan. He grows up like all kids grow up, graduating and moving out and getting a job. He and his girlfriend make—and burn—a batch of cookies, then watch Aladdin together, holding hands. After his parents leave him for his first night alone in his new apartment, he watches Bambi. “Mother! Where are you?” Bambi cries, echoing Owen’s loneliness.
But, like a 23-year-old Owen says, “I have to do stuff on my own.” Though not totally alone—he will have the movies for as long as he needs them. Not to mention his family.