How Disney gave voice to a boy with autism

Near the beginning of the new documentary Life, Animated, there is a home movie filmed by Cornelia Suskind in November 1993. Her husband, Ron, is playing in the garden of their old house with their son Owen, a little boy with dark curly hair and a winning smile. He is waving a toy sword, and Ron asks him, “Owen, who are you?” Owen grins up at his dad and replies, “I’m Peter Pan and you’re Captain Hook.” Together they tumble and play fight in the autumn leaves.

Shortly after that day, Owen stopped talking, became very unhappy and also began to lose his motor skills; Ron describes seeing him “weaving around like someone walking with his eyes closed”. They knew something was badly wrong – after all, as Ron puts it, “Children don’t grow backwards.” The first paediatrician they saw was puzzled, and referred them to a specialist, who in January 1994 diagnosed Owen with autism.

His parents describe those first few months, filled with confusion and fear, as the worst time in their lives. “Owen had so many alarming behaviours – although luckily he was never violent or aggressive,” says Cornelia. “I feared that he would never speak, that we would be taking care of him for his entire life.”

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3rd December 2016