One thing that ‘Life, Animated‘ has in common with the book ‘George and Sam’, which I reviewed here a couple of months back, is the idea of an ‘autistic crash’ – a regression, where parents ‘lose’ the child that they thought was growing up in their home, and inherit an obviously autistic child with a very different developmental outlook. Charlotte Moore describes her son Sam as having had a significant crash at around the age of 6. Owen Suskind, at the centre of ‘Life, Animated’, had his crash at the age of 3, which is much more typical according to what little research there is on the topic.
In ‘Regression in Autistic Spectrum Disorders’ (Neuropsychology Review, 12/2008), the author, Gerry Stefanatos, talks about the utility of home video in supporting the ‘enigmatic scenario’ of autism following after a period of normal development. We are lucky enough to have some in this film, as Owen’s early course of development is described through interviews with him, with his parents, and in home videos.
‘Regressive autism’ is a contentious idea, tied in as it is with ‘acquired autism’ through immunisation and also with gut-flora theory (which is actually not entirely outside of the academic mainstream). As such it is extremely interesting to see that there exists video of a young Owen playing rough and somewhat imaginatively with his dad, with fairly speedy turn-taking and some sensitive adaptions and adoptions of his father’s words and actions. The contrast with later videos of Owen, with his now unusual gait, his head-down demeanour and his ‘slow-or-no’ response to social stimuli, is strong, and frankly rather compelling for those like me who wondered whether regression in ASD is really a thing or not.
This film is part biopic – showing him making his way in the world as a young, autistic adult; part fantasy animation – taking his ideas about the autistic mind and animating them; and part documentary – as he makes his way in the world as a young adult.
Stay in character
Owen’s dad says that ‘Owen vanished’ at the age of three. He stopped sleeping. His motor skills deteriorated. His language processing broke down and he started reciting gibberish. Owen now recalls that people were ‘garbled’ and he could not understand what they were saying. He was diagnosed with autism and therapy commenced, with his parents utterly devastated. The only thing that calmed the young Owen was watching animated Disney films.
[d͡ʒusə vəʊs] – “Just your voice”. This is what the little mermaid had to exchange to become human. These were also Owen’s first recognisable words in this era. The paediatrician called it echolalia, which of course it was.
Then after one of his brother’s Walter’s birthday parties, Owen commented that ‘Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan’. This is the moment that Owen’s magnificent dad realised that Disney was not just a refuge for Owen, but that it was something that he was starting to use as a mirror for his own feelings. A window opened, and the whole family began to speak to Owen in Disney dialogue.
Cue Owen’s dad acting out the role of Iago, the villian’s sidekick in Aladdin. He is incredible. What a playmate he must have been for Owen.
The film shows how Owen has interpreted the films – Hercules is about not giving up. The Jungle Book is about wanting to have friends. Pinocchio is about wanting to be a real boy. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about persecution and self-identity. Dumbo and Bambi are about breaking out on your own. The Little Mermaid is about being broken hearted.
Owen has internalised every moment of the films, he lives the emotions, and he replays them to make sense of his own life. He finds that the exaggerated expression and emotion in the animations assists him in his interpretations.
[From a speech therapy specific perspective, it’s interesting to meet Michelle Garcia Winner (she of the brilliant You Are A Social Detective book) as she delivers some input to the adult Owen as his ‘Social Thinking Evaluator’.]
Making an impression
For autistic kids, words, interactions, social thoughts, they all run by at a rate of knots, like a dizzying ride on a roller-coaster. The sheer simplicity of an animated social encounter, say between Simba and the threatening Scar, is what makes it so irresistible to the autistic mind. Add in the fact that it can be replayed, unchanging, as many times as you like and you have a useful learning tool for autistic kids.
Crystallising social thoughts is at the heart of a range of approaches that aim to help autistic kids understand why people do the things they do, including Superflex, Friendship Terrace, and Comic Strip Conversations. Even outside of these formal approaches, adults working with children with autism are always having to find ways to get the child to chase back the vapour trails of social thought. They do this by choosing good play partners for the child, emphasising what that child was thinking, why they thought that what they did, why they did and said what they did and said, what they want them to do, and so on. Different children need a different slant to make this information interesting and meaningful, and we need to be alert to that child’s social references if we are to make an impact on their thinking.