How an autistic boy connected through Disney and our stories link us

Photo credit: Mike Grenville (Creative Commons)

Human beings are story-tellers, whether gathered around a fire in skins millennia ago or sitting at the Thanksgiving table while spearing another piece of turkey.

We sometimes forget or never realize the power of story for linking us to each other.

Some stories are about something that happened to one person or family. They can be hysterically funny, quirky or sad.

Our family and individual stories can get passed down over the years and define a family.

I’ve heard about my Polish maternal great-grandfather who made my grandfather quit school at age twelve to help support the family, and how my father saved up and bought a book series, the Harvard Classics, and brought them home on his bicycle.

These, in their own ways, are about work and about learning. In one case, these went together. In the other, they didn’t. But both young men wanted to learn, and so these stories taught me this was a passion my forebears pursued. (My grandfather did not support my mother’s pursuit of an education, but that is another story.)

You must surely have your own powerful family and individual stories.

And then there are our collective tales, the ones shared across families. 

We can connect and grow through those. At the same time, who we are changes as we hear those repeated time and again.

Walt Disney started an enterprise that created many memorable characters.

Not surprisingly, one of my favorites is Belle from the animated Disney film Beauty and the Beast. She reads a lot and loves to learn. She dislikes the popular Gaston, a bully, vulgar, ill-learned fellow who pursues her only because of what she looks like. And she is able to see the intelligence and gentleness within the Beast. When he is attacked out of fear and derided for being different, she defends him and ultimately changes him.

Journalist Ron Suskind tells how his autistic son learned to connect through Disney

When Owen Suskind was three, he suddenly regressed and his ability to communicate nearly disappeared. Owen became autistic.

But ultimately Disney stories and characters gave him a line to connect again.

As Owen’s father reports:

It’s Walt’s 9th birthday, September 1997, in our new house near Chevy Chase Circle. Owen is 6½. After roughhousing with buddies in the backyard at the end of his party, Walt gets a little weepy. He’s already a tough, independent kid, often the case with siblings of disabled kids. But he can get a little sad on his birthdays. As Cornelia and I return to the kitchen, Owen walks in right behind us.

He looks intently at us, one, then the other. “Walter doesn’t want to grow up,” he says evenly, “like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”

We nod, dumbly, looking down at him. He nods back and then vanishes into some private reverie.

It’s as if a thunderbolt just passed through the kitchen. A full sentence, and not just an “I want this” or “Give me that.” No, a complex sentence, the likes of which he’d not uttered in four years. Actually, ever.

We don’t say anything at first and then don’t stop talking for the next four hours, peeling apart, layer by layer, what just happened. Beyond the language, it’s interpretive thinking that he’s not supposed to be able to do: that someone crying on his birthday may not want to grow up. Not only would such an insight be improbable for a typical 6-year-old; it was an elegant connection that Cornelia and I overlooked.

It’s as if Owen had let us in, just for an instant, to glimpse a mysterious grid growing inside him, a matrix on which he affixed items he saw each day that we might not even notice. And then he carefully aligned it to another one, standing parallel: The world of Disney. [source]

Owen is now 20, still autistic but far better connected to others. And Disney stories provide a key context and mode of communication. He has a special affinity to the sidekicks who help the heroes and protagonists.

When I read about Owen, I thought about a situation, this one fictional, of how communication is dependent on myth and tale. This one is from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode called Darmok. It takes place on a planet where Captain Picard tries to communicate with a Tamarian. These humanoids do not use language in the same way as others and the universal translator doesn’t work to convey meaning. It is only when Picard realizes that the Tamarians tell stories to express what they are thinking and want that he can connect and understand.

Both Owen’s situation and the Star Trek are extreme cases, as, our stories aren’t typically as critical to communication.

But they do matter – even as we change and grow.

We live our lives and often repeat much day to day and season to season. Yet things also change, as children are born and grow, people go off and come back, we learn and forget, get healthy and get sick.

As that happens, our stories take on different meaning. Our experiences deepen what we take from the stories.

Recently Harold Ramis died. Ramis was, among much else, the producer, writer and director of Groundhog Day, a movie about a self-centered jerk of a man who lived the same day over and over again but eventually learned to care and connect. By doing so, he was able to move beyond that one day.

The movie has become a classic, and here Ramis explained how different religions praised it as delivering a message about our stories and our growth.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.