By Stephanie Thompson, Kaplan University Composition Professor
Ron Suskind’s recent New York Times Magazine article describes his family’s attempts to connect to their autistic son, Owen, through his love of Disney animated films. A typical toddler until just before his third birthday, Owen began losing speech and retreated into his own world. The only moments his parents and brother connected with him occurred while watching his beloved Disney movies. Their first breakthrough came while watching The Little Mermaid; they realized that his “gibberish” refrain “Juicevose” actually meant “Just your voice,” what Ariel must give Ursula for legs and a chance with her beloved Prince (Suskind, 2014, para. 8). As Owen began to make associations between his own experiences and those of the characters, particularly the “sidekicks,” his parents worked with therapists to use these associations to help Owen communicate. Now in his early 20s, Owen is attending a special school for those on the autism spectrum, falling in love with a young woman he met there, and telling his father, “ . . . . it can get so lonely, talking to yourself . . . you have to live in the world” (as cited in Suskind, 2014, para. 168). Suskind notes, “that desire to connect has always been there as, the latest research indicates, it may be in all autistic people; their neurological barriers don’t kill the desire, even if it’s deeply submerged” (2014, para. 143).
The Suskind family’s search to help Owen find his voice, to forge connections with them and others, resonated deeply with me. Reading about families going through some of the same pains (and joys) that we have experienced since our son Cooper was diagnosed with autism can be both elating and immensely sad. Will my son ever have the revelatory moments of connection and communication that Owen experienced?
I can only hope to find the key to unlock my son’s mind; the Suskinds found it with Disney characters, and I too use stories to forge bonds with my son. I wrote a blog piece for Kaplan’s Parenting Blog about my summer reading aloud to Cooper, sharing some favorites like The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web, and we have continued our nightly ritual for the past year. We read stories about quests and finding strength, stories that give me hope that one day my son will find, if not his voice, a way to let me know what he is thinking and feeling. Flora and Ulysses, Kate diCamillo’s novel about a squirrel and the girl who believes he is a superhero, is a projection of those hopes, for Ulysses the squirrel learns to type poems and convey his thoughts to his beloved Flora. Ariel lost her voice and found it again, Ulysses lets the clack of typewriter keys tell his story, and I pray that one day, my son will connect with these narratives and understand that he, too, has a voice and stories to tell me.
Recently translated into English by author David Mitchell, himself the father of an autistic son, Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump strives to answer the questions that the teenager imagines others have for him about autism and his odd behaviors. He answers questions like “Why are you so picky about what you eat?” and “What’s the worst thing about having autism?” (2013, p. 57, 43), questions I would love to ask my son, but until we can unlock those doors and find a way to help him communicate beyond expressing simple needs or frustrations, I will have to settle for having him point to a page, indicating that he wants me to keep reading. I am just grateful for those bridges that books have helped me to build with my son.
Note: April is Autism Awareness Month. For more information, go to this site.
Higadisha, N. (2013). The reason I jump. New York: Random House.
Suskind, R. (2014, March 7). Reaching my autistic son through Disney. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/reaching-my-autistic-son-through-disney.html?_r=0
Thompson, S. (2014, January 8). A summer reading aloud [Blog post]. Kaplan Parenting Blog. Retrieved from http://www.kaplanuniversity.edu/student-experience/parenting-blog/a-summer-reading.aspx