Journalist Ron Suskind managed to bring his child back from silence by honing in on his obsession with Disney characters. Now he is working with neuroscientists and AI scientists to bring this method to other parents
Kids with autism, and what is thought to be a neurologically related disorder, ADHD, will often have obsessive interests. One kid will know everything there is to know about train schedules. Another will have a fascination with clouds and precipitation. Still another will know the dialogue of hundreds of movies by heart.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind prefers to call these obsessions affinities. When his own son Owen started manifesting signs of autism at the age of 2 ½, eventually losing the ability to speak, Suskind and his family were able to slowly, arduously reconnect with him through his one remaining affinity: watching animated Disney movies. In 2014, Suskind published a book about the process: Life, Animated. The excerpt he published from the book in the New York Times quickly went viral, and the book became so successful that in the space of a year, it has spun off a documentary film, a school of therapy and even an app.
Suskind was in Tel Aviv last week to deliver the keynote address at Israel’s BrainTech 2015 conference. In a moving talk, he described his journey to affinity therapy, as well as the app designed, in his words, “to do something technologies have not done despite their bold promises. Which is help.”
Speaking to his son through Disney movies
Suskind describes how in his early 30s, he landed his dream job as a senior national affairs editor for the Wall Street Journal, covering Washington politics and interviewing presidents. As he packed his boxes to move from Boston to Washington, D.C., he felt he had the perfect life: a prestigious job, wonderful wife and two strapping boys, ages 5 and 2 ½.
“And then something happened,” said Suskind. As they began to settle in to their life in Washington, DC, they realized, “there was something wrong with my younger son.”
Owen had stopped looking at his parents. His vocabulary of several hundred words dwindled over several months to just one: juice. He didn’t sleep much and cried all the time.
But there was one thing Owen still loved to do: watch Disney movies.
“He would have 7, 8, 9 sessions per week of therapy,” explained Suskind, “during which he watched the movies with peculiar intensity.”
Owen could not speak, but he memorized 50 animated movies by sound alone. The more he watched these movies the more he pieced together meaning on the screen.
One day, when Owen was 6 ½, his father approached him speaking in the voice of Iago, the parrot in Disney’s Aladdin.
“So, Owen, how ya’ doin’?” he asked in Iago’s voice. “How does it feel to be you?”
To his father’s surprise, Owen answered, “I’m not happy. I don’t have friends. I can’t understand what people say.”
After this breakthrough, everyone in the family started speaking to Owen through Disney characters and dialogue.
“He created an emotional language out of hundreds of hours of Disney lyrics and dialogue. We had to speak Disney. It was the only way we could reach him.”
In fact, Suskind said, Owen, now in his 20s, has become such an expert on Disney that he has actually written a powerful narrative that the Walt Disney company wants to produce as a movie.
Suskind describes Owen when he was behind his wall of silence as the “world’s most discarded person.” He said that by trying to see the world through his eyes, he and his wife realized there is not a neat division between intellect and emotion.
“When you feel inspired you deserve to feel good. You are not just feeling better, you are better,” said Suskind.
Creating a theory of “Affinity Therapy” for those with autism, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s
Following the publication of his book, Suskind got a call from the National Institute of Health, which asked him to do research on affinities in many communities of the neurodivergent, not just autism sufferers but people with ADHD. The idea is to show that these affinities can be pathways instead of prisons.
Suskind has founded a company, called Affinity Foundation, that supports research to help parents find their childrens’ affinities and reach them through these. He and a team of neuroscientists have put children through “fMRIs to see what parts of their neurology light up when their sweet spot is tapped,” he explained.
“It’s not just Disney movies. Some kids are math kids. Train schedule kids. I have someone who loves black-and-white movies from the ’40s and ’50s. Fine, whatever it is, don’t look at it in terms of your neurotypical prejudices. Look at it as a pathway. What are they doing? They’re using this affinity as a codebreaker, to crack the codes of the wider world.”
According to Suskind, we all exhibit compensatory strengths. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are blind, so of course they can do amazing things with sound. A veteran returns from Iraq paralyzed from the waist down. So he builds enormous muscular dexterous arms.
“The brain works the same way,” says Suskind. “When one part of the brain is under siege or is blocked, the brain builds neurocompensations. Those fresh neural pathways are extraordinarily powerful. They’re the things that we often celebrate people for. Whether they’re our artists or our innovators or some of our great inventors, the passion is the pathway.”
Suskind says he now supervises a team of technologists and neuroscientists creating Sidekick – an app that uses AI and guides families to connect with their children through their affinities.
The goal is to help people with autism, ADHD and Alzheimer’s achieve lives that are fully realized and productive. “This is just the right thing for a country like Israel,” says Suskind, to “help heal this world.”