Ron Suskind's "Life, Animated" is an extraordinary saga of an exceptional boy from a remarkable family and their compelling journey through autism.
How much more it is will likely depend on the reader.
Those looking for a smart, well-written, deeply moving, up-from-the-depths inspirational tale with a positive ending should love it. Families with autism might have more divided reactions.
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Full disclosure: I am among the latter, with a severely autistic son almost 21 years old, two years younger than this story's subject, Owen. My own ambivalence mirrors the dichotomous reaction "Life, Animated" will arouse in the increasingly diverse autism community.
The book's publisher, Kingswell, is a Disney imprint, and suspicion is warranted because Disney movies are Owen's redemptive bridge to the outside world. Suskind's disclaimer that The Walt Disney Company "agreed to exert no influence whatsoever over the content of this book" is easy to believe, since Disney can only be thrilled with the story, but still. …
"Life, Animated" opens with a wrenching description of the fall from typical development into autism hell. Thousands of families experience what Pulitzer Prize-winning political writer Suskind portrays. The loss of just-developing language and motor skills (like having difficulty with a "big boy cup" that had already been mastered), the retreat from interaction into a remote and isolated internal place, idiosyncratic and self-stimulating behaviors like flapping and hard-to-decipher movements and vocalizations, an apparent stalling and slipping of cognitive development — all parts of the bombshell hurled at one child out of 68 these days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's the first 24 pages, after which the story really begins: Owen's journey from classic autism to a life of independence, complete with career potential and a love life, achieved through lessons learned and a way to express himself via (mainly) Disney movies.
The already-old saw that "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," reflects, in part, the unpredictable path those with classic autism travel, with some remaining hidden in their internal worlds while others emerge.
It also speaks to the vastly different ways families confront the disorder. One would never wish autism on anyone, but the Suskinds are, as much as any family can be, in a good position to wrestle with it.
They are an exceedingly bright and insightful bunch, living in an area (the vicinity of Washington, D.C.) relatively rich in services, with a dedicated, resourceful mother and a prominent father with professional clout and connections; how many dads could set up a meeting between their son and a top Disney animator, who is actually considering Owen's story ideas for a full-blown animated feature? As with virtually any family dealing with autism, every advantage will be exhausted and disadvantage battled.
Owen is a deep thinker and uses Disney to communicate abstract thought and deep emotion, often metaphorically. These qualities were buried by autism, and it is impossible to know how much would have come to the surface with other parents.
Many families with autism will feel intense, commiserative familiarity with issues the Suskinds confront. Owen gets kicked out of a favorite school; is tormented by sadistic bullies; has to be home-schooled for two years; has a hard time being accepted by potential landlords for a tiny, self-made group home. Cornelia, Owen's mother, has jettisoned much of her own life because of autism's demands.
Cornelia, in fact, is almost archetypal in her transformation from an ordinary if accomplished and impressive mortal into a Supermom. The world of autism is silly with Supermoms at all educational and socioeconomic levels, because autism demands it (and yes, Superdads too, though their roles tend to be different, daddy Suskind included). Acknowledge or praise such a parent, and the response will be some version of, "We only do what we have to for our kids."
For the Suskinds, it pays off. Owen lives independently and has known rudimentary, grocery-store employment, with greater potential thanks to his artistic skills.
The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recently reported that only 20.9 percent of young adults with autism spectrum disorders work full time, so Owen is far from alone even if he is in line to move ahead of the curve. Nothing, though, shows his emergence more than the final photo in the book's gallery — Owen standing with an arm around his girlfriend. What it took to get there is a story worth telling.
Another autism story worth telling, though less marketable, is 2009's "Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir," by Karl Taro Greenfeld. Late in the book, which describes the ravages of a family's life with classic autism, comes a depiction of Noah, now a man established in a satisfying, "recovered" life, including a fiancé — a happy ending.
But it is not real. The next chapter begins with a reproduction of a heartbreaking report about the 40-year-old Noah, issued by the state institution where he lives. His brother writes, "I dreamed that happy outcome … as therapy, as a study in what if, as an attempted answer to the great question: what if Noah could talk? What if Noah were normal? What if? What if?"
Owen's tale is a version of such a "What if?" while Greenfeld's is the current fate for many individuals with classic autism.
One take-away is to try to engage an autistic person around what he loves. Yes, depending on the individual's capacity, Disney might be an excellent tool to draw someone out. So can Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine, favorite TV shows, movies, books, toys, puzzles, activities or therapies. Individuals with autism at every point on the spectrum typically have intense, even obsessive interests. Whether those interests are a way of escaping a bewildering world, or a tool for communicating with it, or both, exemplifies the disorder's idiosyncratic nature. An individual's capacity to advance from beneath his autism depends on many factors, with a big hunk of mystery mixed in.
And, truth be told, a bit of luck.
David Royko, a licensed clinical psychologist, has written about autism, children of divorce and music for publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Reader and the New York Times. His books include "Voices of Children of Divorce" and "The Chronicles of Ben: Adventures in Autism."
By Ron Suskind, Kingswell, 358 pages, $26.99Copyright © 2015, CT Now