Prevalence of autism in U.S. children has increased by 119.4% from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68) (CDC, 2014). Autism services cost $236-262 billion annually. With so many children in the U.S affected by autism, this is an important book and one I felt compelled to keep reading. It is a father’s journey to connect with his youngest son and brings to our attention the special challenges, heartbreaks, triumphs and hopes of a family affected by autism. Although this is a work of non-fiction, it reads like a mystery as you hang on waiting for the next development and are in suspense to see how it all turns out.
I actually saw the documentary first at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham this spring and so wanted to read the book which was published in 2014. The highlight was hearing the author and his sons in a panel discussion afterwards. Ron Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter and Washington based journalist, author of five other books, who with his wife Cornelia has two sons, Walter and Owen. This book tells of their family journey over the course of two decades with their autistic son Owen. Owen was a typical toddler when at the age of three he became silent and what followed in the parental attempts to discover his condition and help navigate this new reality.
The book charts the family’s journey to reconnect with Owen through the vehicle of Disney movies and dialog because that was the one thing that he always loved. At the age of 6 ½ after not speaking for three years, Owen watches his brother after his ninth birthday party and his parents clearly heard him say “‘Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” Later that day, Mr. Suskind picked up a puppet of Iago, the parrot in Disney’s animated version of Aladdin. “So, Owen, how ya’ doin’?” he asks in Iago’s voice. “I mean, how does it feel to be you?” “I’m not happy,” Owen answers. “I don’t have friends. I can’t understand what people say.”
And so a new world opens up where the author, his wife and older son, start reciting Disney dialogue in an attempt to draw Owen out. The specialists that treated Owen tried to dissuade the family from engaging this way, while others tailored strategies to help Owen learn via his obsession. Owen learns to read helped by Disney credits and to write by reworking Disney classics. The reality of this family in their quest to help Owen is staggering and the role of both parents and Walter, the older son, is portrayed with honesty, compassion and dignity. There is no Disney storybook ending because despite Owen’s progress he may never entirely make it on his own. He does however make great strides. He graduates from high school, leaves home, finds a girlfriend and so, in some ways, some part of the dream parents have for a child do come true.
By Luba Sawczyn
Branch Manager of the Graham Public Library