An Oscar-Nominated Film Inspires a New Approach to Autism

From that point on, Disney therapy—watching the films together, talking about the characters and their feelings, relating them to Owen’s life, relishing them—became a way of life in the Suskind home, ultimately helping Owen find his voice and place in the world.

Why did it work? Ron Suskind believes it is because kids with autism “have the full complement of emotions and they want to share them and grow in all the ways the rest of us grow,” as he explained in an interview. “What we began to realize is that just by loving what he loved, we were signaling to him a whole basket of things that parents are traditionally able to signal to their children. And the more we did that, the more he opened up.” Another crucial element, Suskind says, is sharing joy. “Owen was noticing our desire 24/7 to ‘fix’ him, but you can’t spend your life trying to fix someone. It’s not an appropriate relationship between a parent and a child. We realized we were not finding joy together, and that’s a big part of this equation.”

Suskind’s book and the Oscar-nominated film quickly caught the attention of the autism community, and have triggered a growing reappraisal of restricted interests, which the Suskinds call “affinities.” The result has been new technology and, soon, a spurt of new research.

In response to the many families who contacted him after reading about Owen, Suskind began to work with one of the inventors of Apple’s Siri and other technologists to create a specialized personal assistant designed to nurture a child’s affinity. The result is an app called Sidekicks—so named because of Owen’s fascination with Disney sidekick characters. Running on mobile devices, it uses a cartoonlike avatar (the child picks one of several options) as an intermediary for a parent or therapist to explore the child’s special interest.

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