Washington, D.C. author Ron Suskind and his wife Cornelia Kennedy were devastated when 2-year-old Owen stopped talking and began walking with a drunken gait.
When, how did their son’s regression begin? “It’s like reviewing clues to a kidnapping,” Suskind writes in “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.”
A series of doctors’ visits brought some clarity but also the specter of a diagnosis they didn’t want to contemplate: autism. “Denial and hope are, of course, cousins. Bring them together and you’ve got an illusion,” Suskind notes.
As Owen’s life shrunk to repetitive viewings of Disney movies and his vocabulary to a single word, “juice,” his parents’ dreams of his ever speaking again also began to shrivel. Then, one day when Owen was 6, his father grabbed a puppet version of the “Aladdin” sidekick Iago, and his best Gilbert Gottfried voice, asked, “So, Owen, how ya’ doin’?”
As Suskind will explain in a Monday night appearance at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters, Owen’s response was something of a miracle.
“I’m not happy. I don’t have any friends. I can’t understand what people say,” Owen responded, in a voice as clear as a bell.
The Feelings Are Real
And so began an ongoing activity the family called the “basement sessions,” in which they staged Disney plays, with each family member taking on a different role. Scenes borrowed directly from “Aladdin,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King” produced an odd sort of communication if you only consider the words. But the feelings were real.
“ … the warmth passing between the characters in the movie – one that Owen has watched hundreds of times – now passes between us. I can feel it,” Suskind writes.
Owen eventually learned to have conversations out of character – in his own words. Still, he sees himself as a sidekick, like Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid,” Timon in “The Lion King” and Lumière in “Beauty and the Beast.” His older brother Walt (yes, like Disney) is a hero.
As Owen grew into adolescence and stumbled through school, his existence inevitably expanded beyond the Disney world into a more cruel reality. But he’s learning about acceptance.
When Owen fancies a young woman, he wants to know, “Is friendship forever?”
“Yes, Owen, it often is,” his father answers.
“But not always,” Owen cautions.
“No, not always,” his father has to admit.
Author Appearance: “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism”
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd.
When: 7 p.m. Monday, April 14
How much: Free
Find out more about the Suskind family and autism.