Shared Joy is Twice the Joy, Shared Pain is Half the Pain

TBTW: Life, Animated

Note: This post was originally written in June, but I waited to publish it until this post on KQED’s State of Health blog came out. But now it has, so check that out too!

Every so often, I come across a book that I love not because the story line is particularly exciting or because the characters are well written. Sometimes I love an author’s way of writing, or perhaps I’m just entranced by the cover. (They say don’t judge, but if we judge positively, who cares?) This time, though, I got obsessed with Life, Animated because of Disney. Ron Suskind is an author of epic proportions – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of a bunch of expose-esque political books – but as far as I can tell this is his first non-political book, and the most meaningful one. That’s because it’s all about his son – Owen.

Owen has autism. He was diagnosed after he stopped speaking at age 3. From that point forward, his typical childhood obsession with all things Disney exploded into an incredible way to understand the world.

At this point, it is hard to believe that anyone doesn’t know something about autism. Hopefully everybody reading this knows that autism is NOT caused by vaccines, so if your child isn’t up to date on their vaccinations, please stop reading. My blog will still be here when you get back from the doctor’s. But people probably also know that most kids with autism find it incredibly difficult to interact with the world around them. The inability to read emotions makes social interactions exhausting to the point of impossible.

For Owen, the only way to deal with the real world is through Disney-colored glasses. As a preschooler, he watched Disney animated movies – like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin – on repeat, watching and mimicking the faces to learn how to speak. For years, he could only converse through Disney dialogue, until his father (the author) had their first heart-to-heart. Under a blanket. Pretending to be Iago, the bird from Aladdin. In elementary school, Owen essentially taught himself to read by sounding out all the names in the credits; at the same time acquiring encyclopedic knowledge of the voice actors, animators, and everyone else involved in the creation of Disney magic.

The book was beautiful. It was fun to read. It was informative. It was inspiring. Even though neither myself nor any of my family has autism, I related to the Suskind family. I sympathized with their challenges and simultaneously learned from them. I watched the story unfold, watched the parents discover Owen and watched Owen discover himself, and I was rooting for them the whole time. It is clear that the author is skilled, both as a writer and as a father. I’d absolutely recommend it for anyone looking to understand a life with autism or a life with a family member who has autism.

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