Well, Ron Suskind’s article “Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney” has been sitting high atop the New York Times’ “Most Emailed” list for almost a week now, and it’s hit the online autism community like a hurricane. There have been many reactions, some of them not…thrilled. The discontent ranges from offense at the phrase “my autistic son” in the headline (more PC would be “my son who has autism” or “my son, diagnosed with autism” – because the diagnosis shouldn’t define the person) to more general problems with a fairy-tale narrative that reads a little too good to be true.
Ron and his son Owen’s amazing story is made doubly amazing by Suskind’s Pulitzer-winning writing ability. To Suskind’s (and his editor’s) credit, he understands both pacing and the appeal of breakthroughs; in this article he doesn’t linger on the many painful years between his son’s shutting down and his sudden, unexpected Disneyfied moment of clarity. That shouldn’t be an indictment of the writing; this is, after all, a book preview, and I assume that the book (to be released on April 1st) will elaborate on a few of the less melodramatically satisfying moments of Owen’s development. Still, the following passage of Suskind’s is less than wildly popular among some families dealing with autism:
“Disney provided raw material, publicly available and ubiquitous, that Owen, with our help, built into a language and a tool kit. I’m sure, with enough creativity and energy, this can be done with any number of interests and disciplines. For some kids, their affinity is for train schedules; for others, it’s maps. While our household may not be typical, with a pair of writerly parents and a fixation on stories — all of which may have accentuated and amplified Owen’s native inclinations — we have no doubt that he shares a basic neurological architecture with people on the autism spectrum everywhere. The challenge is how to make our example useful to other families and other kids, whatever their burning interest.”
I can relate to the opprobrium on this. Personally, my kid has pretty much never said an unprompted word and isn’t interested in anything after a few weeks. If, after Suskind’s book dominates the best-seller list for a while, scientists chase a “Disney method” for helping kids with autism, it’s probably not going to help Dar. Sure. Fair critique.
I totally understand the hurt and conflicted feelings of some of my fellow parents of children with disabilities. I respect their truths, and I absolutely defend their right to say that Suskind is minimizing certain aspects, as well as their right to ignore him entirely. But in the case of autism, in my humble opinion, I believe we’re still in the “exposure-at-all-costs” phase. In the 1995 film The Celluloid Closet, about gays in film history, there’s disagreement over the stereotypical swishing, mincing “sissy” figure that classical Hollywood used as a standard foil: many consider such caricatures the equivalent of Stepin Fetchit coon-figures. No less than Harvey Fierstein replies on camera: “I like the sissy.” Because as a young gay man struggling for role models, he liked watching for them. Any slight visibility of a kindred spirit made him feel less alone. Fierstein says, “you know, exposure at all costs.”
Despite the unprecedented fact that 1 in 54 boys are now diagnosed (as Suskind mentions), there is still a real stigma. People still instinctively recoil from the obviously disabled; “retard” and “retarded” is still a very common insult on playgrounds and elsewhere. (“This article’s retarded!”) I feel Suskind was careful not to over-generalize, but even if he hadn’t been, I think it was generous of him to open such a window into his life. I like his story.
Yes, parts of Owen’s life read like a fairy tale, and it’s not hard to imagine the eventual Disney movie, made-for-TV or otherwise, complete with soft-focus moments like the Iago impressions, the epiphany with Sebastian and Ariel, and the (dare I say it?) Winnie-the-Pooh-like scrawl that reads “I Am the Protektor (sic) of Sidekicks.” (The footnotes point out that the Disney Book Group is publishing the book, but even that’s not as much of a giveaway as this footnote: “The author acknowledges the rights granted to him for the use of Disney materials.” Really? If a Times reviewer were to reference The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Aladdin and a few others, would we expect such a footnote? Of course not. That’s there because the eventual movie will need certain clearances, and Disney is keeping Suskind from claiming too much in eventual “Based on a Book By” residuals.)
Will Life, Animated, the movie, be cloying and over-simplifying? Probably. Will it remind anyone of (the same Times’) A.O. Scott’s review of Saving Mr. Banks (2013), namely that the recent film is less “an exercise in self-promotion. It’s more of a mission statement.”? Maybe. I realize Suskind’s article is a minor sensation not just because of empathy with autism, but also because parents of “typical” kids have very selfish reasons to hope that Disney videos (as opposed to the ones marketed as educational, like Sesame Street) could actually have a salubrious effect on someone somewhere. I once published a review of a book called “Mouse Morality” which is about how Disney films simultaneously build up and tear down our young children (especially girls). I get it. Suskind wished on a star, and it partly came true. That doesn’t mean everyone could, or should.
My biggest takeaway was more along the lines of: they’re spending $90,000/year on him?! Is that factoring in what insurance pays, or is that out of pocket? Are we low-balling our son? (I tell myself that more money wouldn’t make much difference because he gets cranky after a certain amount of time, and thus more therapy wouldn’t help. But maybe we need some of that $90k-style therapy. We can’t afford it, but maybe we need it.) Suskind’s idea of the sidekick resonated, related to why I had chosen character-actors-cum-lead-actors as the subject of my 2013 book published by Palgrave. But Suskind may well have been more “elegant” (a word he used more than once to describe Owen’s speech) than me: “It’s often the supporting players in Disney fables who are more varied and vivid. Even in the earliest Disney movies, the first sidekicks — Goofy, Pluto and then Donald Duck — often carried confusions, frailties, foolishness, pride, vanity and hard-won, often reluctantly learned, insights. The spectrum of complex human emotions is housed with the sidekicks.” Reading the whole article left the impression of Owen as a minor catcher in the rye, keeping kids from falling off cliffs. I’d love my kid to join him there. More likely, my kid will need him to do his job. This also struck me: “After roughhousing with buddies in the backyard at the end of his party, Walt gets a little weepy. He’s already a tough, independent kid, often the case with siblings of disabled kids. But he can get a little sad on his birthdays.” Is this the life we have planned for Dar’s only sibling? Oh, brother.
At the end of the day, Disney videos may have proved uniquely attractive to Owen because of one thing Suskind leaves unsaid in this article (I don’t know about the book): perhaps Owen’s parents felt more relaxed while watching them. Perhaps his parents laughed in a way that they didn’t during the rest of those long years between his regression and Walt’s 9th birthday. For me, it comes back to this quote of Suskind’s: “This is the crushing pain of autism. Of not being able to know your own child, to share love and laughter with him, to comfort him, to answer his questions.” That’s where my family is right now. And let’s face it, Disney videos, if you let them in, can mitigate the pain. And maybe that’s where all improvements start.