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The Orchard / 'Life, Animated'

A Boy's Love Of Disney Was The Key To New Autism Therapy

A magical moment between a father and his 6-year-old son inspired a new autism approach called affinity therapy.

By Calvin Stovall | March 29, 2016

In the documentary "Life, Animated," Ron Suskind remembers every detail of the first conversation he ever had with his son.

"I see Owen on the bed, flipping through a Disney book," he says. "I see Iago, the puppet. ... I grab the puppet; I pull it up to my elbow. ... And Owen turns to the puppet. ... and I say to him, 'Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?'"

"Not good because I don't have any friends," Owen Suskind replied at the time.

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Ron and his son talked for another minute, and Owen even quoted one of Jafar's lines from "Aladdin."

"That was the breakthrough," Ron says. His son was 6 years old at the time.

Like 1 in 68 kids today, Owen grew up with autism spectrum disorder. Ron saw Disney as a bridge into his son's world.

"We were taught by therapists that these are obsessions. This is the way people in autism thought about it for a long time: 'Wean the kid off of it; it's not productive,'" he said in an interview.

The Suskinds didn't follow this advice. They mixed "Disney therapy" with traditional behavioral and cognitive therapies.

Speech language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner, who worked with Owen to help prepare him for independence, also used Disney in her therapy.

"A way to get Owen to learn is really by focusing a lot of learning around the thing he's going to pay attention to and actually seeking to learn on his own, which is Disney," she says.

Owen now works at a local movie theater and has his own apartment. He hopes to join the Disney animation team someday.

"Life, Animated" director Roger Ross Williams says: "I think Owen will always make sense of the world using Disney films. That's how he taught himself to read; that's how he taught himself to understand emotion because the expressions in Disney characters are big, and they have big eyes, and they're bigger than life."

MIT and Yale are now researching affinity therapy, a term the Suskinds coined.

"Life, Animated" will be released in July.

This video includes clips from The Orchard / "Life Animated," Walt Disney Animation StudiosCBSSocial Communication AllianceComedy Central and Owen's Disney Club. Music by Bensound / CC BY ND 3.0.

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