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Owen Suskind, The Moviegoer

You have to read this. [1] You have to. It’s a long story in the New York Times Magazine, in which Ron Suskind, the writer, discovers a way to reach his profoundly autistic son, Owen: through Disney movies. I won’t excerpt the piece because the way it unfolds has everything to do with its shock and wonder. But you have to read it. Here’s a tiny piece:

As the session ends, Griffin pulls me aside. “Autistic kids like Owen are not supposed to do that,” he says. “This is getting weird in a very good way.”

In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, protagonist Binx Bolling uses his deep fascination with films to navigate the real world. This is understood to be a deficit, a weakness, a negative buffer between Binx and reality. But in Owen’s case, watching Disney movies is his bridge to reality. This really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Read it now! [1]

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14 Comments To "Owen Suskind, The Moviegoer"

#1 Comment By Blairburton On March 8, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

In case you haven’t seen this yet:


“My Childish, Unhealthy, Joyous Obsession With The Moviegoer” by Andrew Santella

#2 Comment By Gabrielle On March 8, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

This is so incredible. I haven’t read anything like this since I studied Temple Grandin’s work in college. Have you read ‘Thinking in Pictures’? I thought of this when he mentioned the animation being done in such a way so that you could understand the characters without sound.

The part about the Lab school broke my heart, mostly because I empathize with the difficulties of the parent and the teacher. Thank God that he had such compassionate parents. So many parents and teachers are totally unprepared, ill-equipped for this major work. I’m really excited to share this story!

#3 Comment By Douglas in NM On March 8, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

Just made my weekend. Thanks Rod! Deep and mysterious and painful and joyful are the ways we all connect with each other, most especially parents and children.

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 8, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

Wow. That was crazy good. (The first song mentioned, the Poor Unfortunate Souls sung by Ursula, is absolutely one of my favorite showtunes to this very day, so the “just your voice!” thing was really eerie in a good way.)

As one with more than a few traits on the spectrum, though nowhere near the same intensity, I really empathized with Owen’s “overwhelmedness”, of obsessively processing and devouring absurd amounts of data to try to internally work out a method to function coherently. I’m incredibly glad I never needed $90k a year in help, though, because my family would never have had more than a third of that to spare.

Suskind’s understanding of Owen’s use of myth and characters at the end was insightful: many people go through life intensely pragmatically and a-morally as a default, and then sprinkle some largely-unexamined cultural morality on top. Owen, of course, does it the other way ’round, putting Absolute Right first and foremost, putting Essential Things at the center of evrrything, and then trying to data-process the entire universe in light of those things before undertaking any action. When there isn’t an immediately clear way forward, of course, he locks up with analysis paralysis, with no way to even coherently speak.

The sidekick characters and songs serve as power-transformers, letting him “chunk” the infinity of data into smaller and coherent thematic bits that he can actually handle and interact with on a human scale. I’ve often found myself using RPG characters similarly, on a smaller scale: ways to test out and explore a viewpoint in a safe space before implementing it in real life.

Just an amazing story. Thanks for linking to it.

#5 Comment By jerseyshirls On March 8, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

I will add my own plea for everyone to read this! I just finished it, and then found this page when I Googled about the author. This is one of those articles that MUST be read, and passed on to others. I just pre-ordered the book on Amazon.

#6 Comment By PaulPfaff On March 8, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

Rod, thanks for the strong recommendation, the article is enlightening. My wife works in developmental special education and has worked with lots of children who experience and make sense of the world in non traditional ways … Through sounds and science, light, touch, etc. This story is prabably not as atypical as it might seem, except for the parents’s insight & advocacy for their child, the resources to provide excellent care, and his gift of being able to tell the story so beautifully.

#7 Comment By texasaggiemom On March 8, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

Thank you so much for sharing. I have a nephew on the spectrum, though much higher functioning. He was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine as a little boy and knew all the dialogue and characters of dozens of DVDs. His parents finally wouldn’t let him watch them anymore because they were afraid of the obsession and how it marked him with his peers. I understand their worries, but it was obvious that he deeply connected with the characters.
This was a beautifully written piece. Looking forward to the book.

#8 Comment By Annek On March 8, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

Thanks, that was great! Just really beautiful.

#9 Comment By Stephanie Stevens On March 8, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

I grew up without TV or even videos, so at 35 I haven’t seen most Disney movies, even though I have kids. I’ve honestly had little use for Disney. But this…what a beautifully written piece, and what a great story.

#10 Comment By Lulu On March 8, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

This story just jogged my memory in the most unsettling way–I was pondering why stories like this, like the movie “My Left Foot,” for example, always affect me so viscerally, and it suddenly came to me–I was like that. Not autistic, but imprisoned by grief when my older sister died, age 16, of leukemia. And that first year of grief, I spent hours reading my sister’s Bible, and every 7th grade art project I made was inspired by my reading. So the balsa wood boat I made I called “The Light of the World,” and the kiln-fired tile read “HE has Risen, go tell HIS disciples,” and the light catcher I painted with John 3:16 . . .

#11 Comment By Lulu On March 9, 2014 @ 12:35 am

. . . and now that I’ve finished this article, I sit here wondering how many people whom we write off may have some undiagnosed malady that makes them seemingly unreachable. Mr. Suskind said,

There’s a reason . . . that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacity. . . . Revealed capacity, in turn, may lead to a better understanding in the lives of so many people who are challenged.

If we remove “autistic” from that first sentence, that advice could be a road map for “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” and then acting on it. Active empathy, or something . . .

#12 Comment By Lulu On March 9, 2014 @ 12:56 am

The importance of basic social skills–you know, saying hello or you’re welcome–is another problem shared by autistic people, the excruciatingly shy, even deaf people. A friend of mine at work really disliked a woman who never responded to her “hello”; it turns out the poor woman was deaf, and my friend was saying hello to her back. What seemed like snooty bitchiness was simply deafness!

#13 Comment By jon s On March 9, 2014 @ 1:32 am

wow. hope. as the brother of a developmentally disabled man, it is so important to find hope.

#14 Comment By Lulu On March 9, 2014 @ 11:52 am

Rod, I am reading Purgatorio along with you, and I just saw your post about Canto IV, so I feel a little guilty about recommending something that could contribute to your self-diagnosed sin of sloth, but a documentary on Radio Lab called “Finding Emilie” will knock your socks off, I think, in the same way that this article did.