Harnessing a passion for cartoons: a review of Life, Animated

Review of Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism

Audiobook read by Ron and Owen Suskind

Review by Kathy Kuhl

Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism is a revealing portrait worth the time of anyone interested in family and communication.

In the first chapter, “Growing Backward,” author Ron Suskind vividlly portrays how autism “took” their younger son, Owen. Suskind begins with an old family video that captured the last moving images of their son before autism struck. The small boy is playing and talking with his dad in their backyard, acting out a scene from The Sword in the Stone. Suskind traces their son’s regression with the onset of autism. By age three, Owen had lost all speech. Ron describes the struggle to find a diagnosis and to get help. His story will ring true for parents who have struggled to understand why their children cannot learn and have battled to get help for their struggling learners.

The Suskind family’s journey takes them through several private schools and to many experts (some of whom I have worked with here in Washington, D.C.), and includes some time homeschooling. But the Suskinds saw homeschooling as a temporary measure to prepare their son for more formal school. This family hires an array of experts—a familiar expense to some parents, but beyond the budget of many.

Most interesting to me was how young Owen’s passion for animated films becomes an entry for his parents into his thinking, and an entry for him into a confusing world of social and moral behavior and sensory bombardment. The book follows the parents’ efforts to use the films as a means of communicating with their son, through reenacting memorized dialogue, discussion, and even through the father Ron’s using puppets and imitation to talk with Owen in the character of a beloved cartoon character.

Owen not only memorizes and watches beloved cartoon videos hundreds of times, he learns to draw characters with photographic precision. He later is able to explain that copying the exaggerated cartoon character expressions helped him understand emotions. He apparently learns to read by studying the credits, and amasses an encyclopedic knowledge of animators and voice actors.

Beyond learning about expression of emotion, Owen digests the moral lessons behind classic cartoons. He even extends the lessons beyond what their creators envisioned, to capture truths about self-acceptance, concern for others, loyalty, and love. Owen later meets one of the voice actors he admires and several of the Disney animators, and converses with them intelligently about these themes.

I was particularly pleased to see so much space devoted to many family relationships. From one relative’s initial denial of an obvious problem, Suskind goes on to show us how cousins, aunts and uncles form a community of love that values the gifts of this very different child. Best of all is Suskind’s emphasis on Owen’s relationship with his older brother Walt. Suskind describes that changing relationship, the burden that falls on the neurotypical sibling to be a successful, low-maintenance child, and how Walt comes to see that Owen’s struggle with autism has enriched his own life.

Ron Suskind is open about his mistakes, including getting too involved in the Disney Club that Owen later starts at his two-year collegiate program. Though occasionally Suskind provides more detail and lengthier quotations from animated films than I wanted to read, and though his tone is occasionally pedantic, those weaknesses are offset by the strengths of the book: the drama of his son’s tale, the careful exploration of “Disney therapy,” and the dedication, creativity, and love of this family.

I listened to and so I can particularly recommend the audio recording of this book by Ron Suskind, with the last chapter—his original story of cartoon sidekicks that I’ve love to see animated—written and read by Owen Suskind. But with the print book, you get photographs, and even better, Owen’s illustrations for that last chapter.

While I have interviewed dozens of parents homeschooling children with autism, Life, Animated gave me new insights into life with a child on the spectrum. I recommend it.

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