Welcome to Life, Animated

Our son Owen, like so many with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), has an ‘affinity’—in his case, a deep connection to the Disney movies he’s watched countless times to make sense of an often-bewildering world. We wrote about Owen in Life, Animated, and received scores of letters describing affinities from anime to Minecraft to maps. That’s why we started this site: to share Owen’s story and to create a platform (the Autism Affinities Project) for others to share stories of their own.

We hope you'll join us in gathering and exploring the breathtaking range of expression — impeccable renderings of movie scenes, intricate art, musical performances, stirring videos, and sheer feats of recall — that affinities inspire. Here we make them visible to an appreciate public.

Click to learn more about Affinity Therapy and the new Affinity Foundation.

Autism Affinities Project – Josh

This latest entry in the Autism Affinities Project comes from fellow autism parent, author, and activist Kim Kaplan. Her son Josh has had multiple, fairly wide-ranging affinities over the course of his life, including fire trucks, airplanes, Super Mario Brothers, power poles, the Titanic, sprinkler heads, and Minecraft (the last being a popular affinity amongst people on the spectrum, and one that we did a post about here).

For over a year, Josh’s current affinity has been dogs – something that Kim, as a dog person herself, is delighted about:

Our son, Josh, has always had a dog in his life. When he was born, my older dog was six. When my son was ten, we got a second dog. Three years later, we had to put down my older dog at age fifteen. We were all upset, including my son.

Joshʼs affinity for dogs started over a year ago. He always wants to go to the dog park or, at least, visit the three neighborhood dogs that we know. He loves to talk about dogs, pet them, and log “dog meets.” On our summer vacation, for example, he logged in a notebook every dog he met. I personally love his latest affinity because we not only have a dog, but I grew up with dogs. When I was his age, I loved dogs just like my son.

Fortunately, many people love dogs – both neurotypicals and others – and thus it is an affinity that lends itself very well to socializing. In fact, studies suggest that there are numerous medical benefits of dog ownership for children on the spectrum. Unfortunately, when an affinity involves live creatures rather than objects or media, it can create a tricky situation with less-than-friendly animals – or owners:

Josh was comfortable around dogs, having always had a dog in his life. So when the affinity first began, he thought it was okay to approach any dog – assuming that dog would react just like his own.

What did we do?

We decided to develop a social script for how Josh approached dogs and their owners.

“Scripting,” as it’s called, can serve multiple functions for children on the spectrum. Behavioral specialist Bill Nason writes that this practice “provides them ‘set scripts’ that they can say when they cannot find other words, it can provide predictability in a chaotic world, it can be a fun way of organizing language and playing with new phrases, etc.” This proved to be a successful tactic with Josh:

To this day, he has to ask the owner two very important questions before trying to pet any dog:

1. Is your dog friendly?
2. May I pet your dog?

If the answers are both positive, he pets the dog. At this point, he usually plows forward with his own questions. These are ones that he developed on his own due to his love for information (in this case, dog information). Things like:

3. What is her/his name?
4. How old is your dog?
5. What kind of dog is this?
6. Does your dog get along with other dogs?
7. Does your dog create mischief?
8. What mischief does your dog do?

He will spontaneously ask even more questions depending on his time constraints, mine, or the owner(s) of the dog.


Most of the time, the responses are affirmative and we have no problems. However, Joshʼs poor ability to read facial cues and/or body language means that he doesn’t necessarily pick up on when the owner of a dog is giving off a vibe like, “Hey, kid, donʼt bother me.” They may not be saying that, they may completely ignore my son instead; but I understand the response.

Josh doesn’t.

We had to pull him aside many times and explain to him how that owner reacted to his questions. To this day, Josh is never pleased at having his obsession “interrupted” in this manner. But, again, we have discovered yet another great teaching tool.

By developing a social script for Josh to approach dogs and their owners, Kim enabled him to use his affinity to learn and connect with others. On one particular day, that script was broken – and Kim watched in delight as her son adapted to the situation, motivated by his love for dogs to carry on the interaction:

One day, Josh approached a woman with a Springer Spaniel sitting on a park bench. Immediately, Josh launched into the first of his two scripted questions: “Is your dog friendly?”

The woman smiled and said, “Yes. Are you friendly?”

Josh froze. No one had ever asked him that question! He didnʼt know how to respond.
I was standing behind him. I laughed because it was such a cool way to respond to my son. What a great teaching tool, I thought. The woman had broken his script!

Josh smiled and replied, “Yes. Iʼm friendly.” Then, he smoothly asked his second question and went on to have a great interaction with this woman.

Ultimately, Josh’s affinity has had multiple positive effects on his social life, and Kim continues to explore the ways in which his affinity can be a source of connectivity with others:

As a matter of fact, this whole dog obsession has been a boon for our son. We are dog people and I love it that my son is now well known at the local dog park. Owners of dogs (who are mostly adults) seem to accept him and appreciate his love of dogs.

He now approaches strangers and talks to him in a pretty appropriate manner.

Itʼs a start, at least. And a darn good one.

Thank you, Kim, for sharing your story with the Affinities Project. Kim has written several books for parents with autistic children and continues to advocate for autism awareness. Learn more about her work on her website.

Autism Affinities Project – Yonatan

 Today’s posts, of which this is the second, tell affinity stories from the perspective of parents. Life, Animated, of course, is one such story. We are interested in parent-told stories because in many cases parents are first to notice an affinity, and their positive response to it can  be a boon to their child (though by no means are affinities a panacea.) Ultimately, we hope to gather affinity stories from the perspective of those on the autism spectrum themselves, stories which will offer a unique perspective, but today– and in our Autism Affinities Poll– we are taking time to listen to and to honor the work of parents. 

This story comes from Rachella, mother of Yonatan, in Israel. 


This is a story, not a video or work of art.

Before I describe the actual incident – a few background facts:

Yonatan, our autistic 14 years old son, is non-verbal. We have been trying to work with him, very slowly, on writing, to help him express his thoughts and feelings, when pictures are not enough (or too reductive).

He has a wonderful teacher who comes and works with him on communication skills (and I, his mother, always sit with them). I should also state that although his language is passive, it is obvious that Yonatan is bilingual – he lives in Hebrew but understands English very well. Yonatan’s affinity has always been Sesame Street and especially Elmo, but lately he has shown us he is very drawn to other stuff. 

And now our story begins:

Yonatan came into a recent session with Tomi (his teacher) babbling a lot. He was very hyper (he is also diagnosed with severe ADHD). Among the things he was babbling were a few syllables he repeated a lot: : Ata-y, ata-y, he said again and again.

“We know you are trying to say something but we can’t understand,” both Tomi and I said to him.

Then we started writing, and Yonatan wrote a few letters that were not coherent to us. And then he wrote in Hebrew the letters that make up the same strange combination: Ata-y.

Tomi said: “You are writing what you are saying, but we are still not sure what it means.” And then she said – “maybe it’s English?” And we were both saying it out loud, “trying” the sounds: “ata-y, ata-y”.

And that’s when it hit me, and I said out loud, straight to Yoantan’s face: “But Why! But Why! I think that is what you are saying – But WHY? From Matilda!”

And Yonatan smiled and looked at me with those smart, warm, brown eyes of his, acknowledging that I guessed right.

And I started singing to him although I did not remember the exact words, and I also explained to Tomi this is a CD (Matilda, the musical) we have been listening to a lot in the car lately, and in this particular and very powerful song the big kids sing to the little kids about how terrible school is and how they should be careful, and towards the end of the song, a little kid asks: “But WHY?” and the big kid answers angrily: “BUT WHY? Haven’t you heard what he said??”

So Tomi asked me if I had the words of the song, and I said – they are printed in the programme I brought from London. And I went and got it and I started reading:

So you think you’re able
To survive this mess by being a Prince or a Princess
You will soon see
There’s no escaping tragedy
And even
If you put in heaps of effort
You’re just wasting energy
‘Cause your life as you know it is ancient history
I, have suffered in this jail
I’ve been trapped inside this cage for ages
This living hell …

We looked at Yonatan who was suddenly much calmer then before and we looked at each other, and with tears in our eyes we thanked Yonatan for making us understand how he was feeling.

And in the end Tomi said, referring to Life, Animated: “You understand this was a Disney moment, don’t you?”

So I thought I should write to you and share this with the Life, Animated community, because if anyone would understand what that moment meant to us, it is all the people who have wished for and hopefully experienced a moment like that.

Thank you for listening,

Rachella (Yonatan’s mother)

Autism Affinities Project – Reid “Music and Movies” Moriarty

We’re very happy to share the story of Reid “Music and Movies” Moriarty in the words of his parents.

banding-together-94-of-97Ray Charles said, “I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. It was a force already within me when I arrived.” That was true of our son, Reid, who is now 20.

Reid has an affinity for music, entertainers, and performing. As a toddler, he memorized more than 200 track numbers and titles on favorite CD recordings and from “My First Hymnal.” It is obvious how deeply he feels music—both by how he wanders to wherever it is played and dances with abandon when he arrives. Songs in a minor key still bring him to tears. Gifted with perfect pitch, Reid helped select our first piano, nonverbally. The salesman said, “you need to get this one or he won’t abide it being played.”

There was a time we claimed, “everything he knows he learned through music—from potty training to math.” Music therapy became a lifestyle in our home, because it worked. We reflect more on that in a segment of Voices of Autism, by TheSongstreamProject.org. Reid’s passion for old musicals and Disney movies followed naturally.

Much like Owen, he doesn’t leave the screen until it goes black and has gleaned encyclopedic knowledge of creators and performers by watching the credits as well as his favorite scenes both forward and in rewind. An aficionado of VHS technology, Reid frequents thrift stores and library book sale rooms in search of obscure titles. Learning to repair broken tapes was a victory in fine motor sequencing and has become a hobby (almost as satisfying as comparing trailers on different print dates).

Enamored with legendary entertainers the likes of Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke, and Kevin Clash, Reid comes alive on stage. He was the self-appointed front man and vocalist for The Kingsmen band for 6 years, performing in coffeehouses, children’s programs, and nonprofit fundraisers with three other guys on the spectrum.

Reid now writes and records original songs with his longtime music therapist, Angela Neve. The winsome lyrics of “Orange Piano” and “I’ve Got the Blues” create a unique form of edutainment for all ages. His live performances of songs like “Shine” and “Change” inspire listeners while challenging expectations. Reid’s comedic timing, innate stage presence, and contagious joy are irresistible.

Future projects include a full-length voiceover of the Mary Poppins movie and “Talk Time with Reid,” a series of podcast interviews with people he finds interesting (and you might too).

Lyrics by Reid Moriarty and Angela Neve

Some days I feel grand
With the sun on my face and my feet in the sand
I can do anything
Whatever the day may bring

The clouds roll in and sky turns gray
I can’t find the words to say
I don’t know what to do
I see some light is breaking through

You can do it if you really try
Don’t give up, reach for the sky
A spark in you has begun to grow
Shout it for the world to know, you’re gonna
Shine, shine, shine

Some days my feet won’t stop
As I’m running to the mountain top
My heart is pounding, the wind’s at my face
I wonder how long I can keep this pace

The clouds roll in and sky turns gray
I can’t find the words to say
I don’t know what to do
I see some light is breaking through

Sing with your heart
Play your part
Jump to your feet
Dance in the street

Don’t be afraid
Let others see
The dreams you have
What you could be

Autism Affinities Project – Hannah

It’s well known that Minecraft is popular in the spectrum community– in fact, there is even a version of Minecraft specifically geared toward the community, Autcraft, which was created by Stuart Duncan, who is himself on the spectrum and has a son who is as well. People with autism engage with Minecraft in all sorts of ways, but we hadn’t heard of Minecraft being used as an art studio– that is, until we met Hannah. Hannah’s grandmother and caretaker, Angie, shared with us some of Hannah’s remarkable works of art, and explained how she creates them:

2014-01-04_21.53.42 (1)

“She used to draw (replicate) cartoon characters perfectly but now spends most of her time on Minecraft. She doesn’t start with a drawing. She actually visualizes a pattern on a grid and can superimpose it from her mind onto the computer screen and fill in the grid accordingly. It’s quite a gift.” Some of Hannah’s creations are built from the inside-out, beginning with accurate renderings of their internal organs.

Minecraft has offered Hannah a space not only for creation but for sociality, which, as for many spectrum kids, can be overwhelming to her in the face-to-face realm. As Angie describes,

“It’s been about 2 years since Hannah’s been building on Minecraft. She’s an avid Minecrafter and plays with others and is very well respected in the Minecraft world.  She comes alive there– her world is on the computer. People would term her high-functioning, but she’s very Aspie. If we have a deep personal conversation it has to be by text as she does not like to talk to me or be hugged or kissed.”

Thanks in part to Minecraft, Hannah is thriving. That this comes on the heels of significant difficulty at home makes Angie very grateful:

“The tragic part of Hannah’s life is that her ‘disability’ was used by Child Protective Services as a means to adopt out her baby sister.  This turned Hannah’s world upside down. They insinuated that she might someday hurt her sister – nothing could have been further from the truth. She adored her baby sister and was destroyed by their removal of her from our home. As I am merely a grandmother I had no standing, and no rights to my own grandchild as I had not yet gotten legal guardianship of her.”

Angie hopes to someday bring Hannah to “MineCon,” the annual Minecraft convention, and to write a screenplay about Hannah’s life. But first, the goal is to get Hannah through her teenage years. As Angie says, “She is so talented but still isolates so much and comes alive on the computer.  Adolescence is now our challenge!”



Autism Affinities Project – Quentin

A few months ago, I met a woman named Melissa at a reading in New York City. She told me about her son Quentin, who has a surprising affinity: corporate logos. One of the first Autism Affinities Project posts was a video Melissa sent me of Quentin in their family’s kitchen, and I have continued to come to know him through the incisive blog Melissa writes about their life together, The iQ Journals: Adventures in Autism, Media, and Technology with a Boy Named Quentin. Today, I’d like to repost a piece Melissa wrote in April about a recent family vacation. Being uprooted can be difficult for any autistic child (even if they are a Disney fan headed to Disney World!), and Quentin’s affinity ultimately helped him “unlock” that message.

This past week was Spring Break for my children. Like so many other American parents, we ventured to take our children on a little vacation. This is the first real trip we’ve taken since our very successful trip last summer. And this is not the first time that I’ve noted that Quentin’s logo obsession seems to have an uptick on vacation. However, this time, the attachment to naming logos seemed to be at its all-time high, and it came with a lot of negative energy on Quentin’s part.

Q planeWe were visiting my parents in Sarasota, Florida. This is a place that my children have been before, albeit not for a long time. I did not do nearly as much prep for this vacation as I have in the past. I did not make a social story about it, for example. Or show him any pictures that resembled a schedule. Quentin knew that we were going on an airplane, as we told him over and over again and he would get excited. But, I think he was unprepared for the week due to a lack of social story explaining who we were seeing and what we would be doing. (Of course, I understand this now in retrospect, but was too busy before the trip to do anything about it.) I am now beginning to think that his demands for naming logos throughout the trip were most likely a response to being out of routine. They came with a kind of anger and sadness.

First, let’s start with the obvious. There are a LOT of logos between New York City and Sarasota. We’ve got the car ride to the airport – filled with logos of stores and shops, signs, etc. Then there’s the airport itself, filled with airline logos, food vendors and newsstands. You would think we’d get some peace once we were in the air, but then there’s the fabulous televisions behind every seat on JetBlue, where Quentin had free reign to change the channels to find more. Even the information card in the seat pocket is filled with logos of snacks and drinks. Once we landed, Quentin had the gleeful experience of seeing every car rental logo known to man at the Tampa airport, followed by a car ride to display all finest logos from Tampa to Sarasota. When there were no logos around, Quentin would read the makes and models of the cars on the highway next to us. It was a long trip of logo-reading.

Let me be more explicit about what happens when Quentin sees a logo. First, he points and reads it. Then he keeps repeating the words until someone else repeats it back to him. If nobody repeats the logo (or words) back, he often has a tantrum. So if we are in the car, for example, it’s impossible to have a family conversation at all. Quentin dominates our family car rides. We sometimes let a tantrum ride itself out just to share important information, but otherwise, Quentin dominates our togetherness. It leaves us all very exasperated.

Here’s what it looked like while we were driving around. (Click here if you don’t see the video below.) Fiona helped him by repeating the logos he saw, to the best of her ability. As you can see, his words are not always easy to understand.

Usually, it was not this peaceful. Quentin was more agitated. When we arrived in Florida and it got late, he said to me, “I want home.” My heart sank. It’s at this point that I realized he didn’t understand that we were on a vacation at all. He didn’t realize that we traveled all day and we would be sleeping there, for several nights. He went to bed very upset that night.

Throughout the week, the logo-naming increased. He found them throughout my parents’ home, especially on their widescreen TV. He also started to spout logo names sporadically, without even seeing them. “Clorox,” he would say to me, with perfect eye contact, waiting for a response. “Clorox,” I would say. He would counter with, “Pringles,” again waiting for my response. “Pringles,” I would say. For Quentin, this is typical back-and-forth conversation. We could go several rounds of brand names before he got tired or distracted.

I noticed that he kept saying, “24 hour locksmith” a lot. This is not really a logo, but a group of words. It is familiar to everyone in our family, because comes from a sticker that someone slapped on the buzzer of our apartment in Brooklyn; it must have been placed there by an eager locksmith ready to make some money if someone accidentally got locked out. Quentin adores that sticker and reads it every time we leave or re-enter our building. It’s one of those phrases that we are asked to repeat all the time for Quentin, so we all sort of tune it out. But this time, on vacation, Quentin asked for us to say this logo a lot. Slowly, eventually… it occurred to me what Quentin was actually trying to communicate. When I figured it out, I confronted him about it. “Yes, I hear you: ’24 hour locksmith.’ That’s on the front of our building in Brooklyn. Does this mean you want to go back home, Quentin?” “Yes,” he replied quickly. He had no other way to say it, so he was saying it with a logo.

The vacation was not all about logos, of course. Quentin did experience some very happy moments during our time there. One of those happy moments was going on the “Air Grover” roller coaster in Busch Gardens. Fiona and Quentin went on that roller coaster several times; they have a shared joy of roller coasters.

air grover

Quentin also loves to swim; we enjoyed the pool several times while we were there.

Q swimmingWhile there were some joyful moments, Quentin always came back to his logos during our trip. They are predictable – a known entity for him. When we arrived at home at the end of our vacation, Quentin seemed very relieved. The need for logo-reading and repetition slowed down. He could relax in his familiar surroundings and enjoy our home again.

I am learning that Quentin uses logos to communicate ideas he cannot really say. He holds on to them as comfort. He sees them as familiar friends in places that are unfamiliar. I am constantly trying to experience them as he does. They are not just words and symbols that advertise; they evoke feelings or places or times for him. I am trying to learn his language, just as he is trying to learn mine.

 Update: Since originally posting this, Melissa has compiled an amazing list of key moments in her understanding of Quentin’s affinity. Check it out here!

Autism Affinities Poll

In April, the New York Times reported that researchers from MIT, Yale, and Cambridge, inspired by Life, Animated, are teaming up to study the effectiveness of structuring therapy around a child’s affinity. This was thrilling news, and research we will watch closely. But (as anyone who has ever suffered from a chronic condition knows well) scientific research is slow to unfold. And our curiosity on this front–bolstered by your curiosity in the form of countless letters–is strong!

As such, Dr. Dan Griffin (Owen’s longtime therapist, with whom we devised exercises like ‘Educating Zazu’) and I came up with an informal poll to complement the formal research that is soon to be underway. Through it, we’re hoping to get a sense of who else out there has had experiences like ours with Owen. We ask questions about your child’s passions, and about how others have responded to those passions. We’re hoping this will give us a richer sense of how affinities operate in individual lives that will assist us in better documenting and channeling those affinities in the future.

You can access the short survey here:

All information will be kept completely anonymous, and we won’t use your e-mail for any purpose other than to share our results in the coming months.

If you have any questions, please feel free to direct them to suskind [dot] lifeanimated [at] gmail [dot] com!

Many thanks, Ron & Dr. Griffin

Autism Affinities Project – Gabriel

A few weeks ago, Antonia, the UK mother of a 5-year-old with autism, wrote to us to say that she was struck by the similarity between Owen’s story and that of her son Gabriel. If Owen’s cinematic sweet spot is Disney, Gabriel’s is Tim Burton–specifically Frankenweenie, Burton’s 2012 film. Last December, Antonia wrote about Gabriel’s fascination with Frankenweenie in a beautiful essay titled “Sparking Connections” (the film’s canine protagonist is named Sparky) for Picturehouse Blog that drew the attention of the film’s screen writer and producer. (In it, she describes “the moment,” during Gabriel’s first viewing of the film, “many clinicians and educators were proven wrong” about her son’s emotional capacities.)

We highly encourage you to read Antonia’s words for Picturehouse and then to continue on below, where Antonia shares how her family has harnessed the power of Gabriel’s affinity since then. (The Film Club she founded for Gabriel holds particular resonance, as Owen’s Disney Club held its final meeting this weekend, with Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman in attendance as surprise guests. Owen graduates from Riverview this weekend.)

The Alchemy of Affinity

Francis Ford Coppola described cinema as ‘a kind of alchemy,’ and when my son discovered Frankenweenie the magic was tangible. We’d been using film as a social mechanism for Gabriel since 2011, 18 months before his diagnosis of autism. Yet it was with the release of Frankenweenie that Gabriel’s affinity for film really grabbed us by the throats and poked us in the eyes – Gabriel made sure we really saw who he is and what he is capable of. Please see the accompanying short blog [referenced above] to read about our epiphany, courtesy of Gabriel, Tim Burton and Disney!

Since Frankenweenie, what I’ve called ‘film therapy’ has infiltrated every part of our lives – schooldays, weekends, evenings, car trips, holidays, meals, bath-time, swimming sessions and more. I started simply by asking 4 cinemas if they’d donate old film posters. 3 obliged and I got them laminated. We began by poring over them like treasure maps, revelling in Gabriel’s eye for detail (he’d spend minutes focusing on details that had passed me by) and with me animatedly commentating. Gabriel couldn’t talk, but his eyes could, and they lit up as I exclaimed – ‘Oooo, it’s a scary bat monster!’, or ‘Fish! Just keep swimming, Dory!’, or ‘Look out! Shaaaarrk!’, or ‘Bird! It’s a blue bird, Gabriel!’ Continue Reading

Autism Affinities Project – Trevor

Meet Trevor. Trevor is a 13-year-old spectrum kid whose knowledge of hockey surpasses that of just about anyone, including his dad, Russ, who works for the NHL. Russ has documented his family’s life since February 2012 on a blog entitled Pucks and Puzzle Pieces (the blog is pseudonymous, but we use the family’s real names on this site with permission.) In the below video he talks to Trevor, who says it’s “pretty cool” not many people can do the things he can.

Recently, Ron caught up with Russ while he was on the road promoting the Stanley Cup to speak to him about Trevor’s skills and the task of creating a world that recognizes and responds to those skills.

A few snippets are below, and you can read the full interview after the jump. Throughout, we link to Pucks & Puzzle Pieces posts, which describe many of the events noted here in more detail.

Russ: We’d taken him on some errands, which is never an easy thing to do. We’d rewarded him at the checkout, for good behavior, with a pack of hockey cards they had there. We got home, and there were these games we liked to play with hockey cards, like War: Who has the tallest player? Who has the player with the most goals?

Trevor said, “Quiz me on these.” The cards we’d bought that day were different in that there weren’t any stats on them. There was an action photo on the front, and on the back they had a description of the game where that photo had been taken. And it said, you know, “This goalie made 37 saves in a 5-1 win on such and such date,” and they were from the previous season. I said, “I can’t, there are no stats.” He insisted, “Quiz me on these! Just don’t tell me the date and the score.” So I start quizzing him, and he responds “5-2, December 12th!”

I go through this whole pack, and there were 40 or 50 cards, and he got all but one of them right. I just thought to check the one he got wrong, and, of course, the card was wrong.

[People say] “Why is this kid always talking about hockey? Why is he socially awkward?” …To see it in the field I work in, where I could have somebody with this kind of knowledge to look at what we do every day, and save us from a million mistakes, it’d be incredibly valuable.

[Trevor] could be perfectly suited for some sort of job as a fact checker, but maybe he doesn’t navigate the interview because he doesn’t make eye contact or he can’t sit still. We need people to recognize that you’ve got to get beyond the exterior to what’s on the inside, because there’s so much value there, and so many different types of people from so many walks of life who aren’t even getting a look because they don’t present according to the model we’ve all grown up accustomed to: firm handshake, eye contact, all that stuff.

I was able to take Trevor to visit his favorite team, the San Jose Sharks, this season after a practice. I watched this, and it reminded me of the time you took Owen to the Disney studios for the first time. He grew a foot before my eyes. He stood straighter. Here he is, meeting his favorite player, Joe Thornton. It was a brief exchange, but there was no stuttered, awkward conversation. He fit right in. He was among his people, his hockey people, and he knew that there was nothing different about him in this crowd. Watching him interact with these players in a way that was so much more at ease than he is with his peers at school was breathtaking.

Continue Reading

Autism Affinities Project – Art by Dylan

Dylan is a young artist with autism whose vivid paintings caught our eye after an exchange on Twitter. We especially can’t stop staring at his sheep, who looks like Kandinsky’s ‘Color Study – Squares and Concentric Circles (1913)‘ engaged in some rapid mitosis and grew legs. Below, Dylan’s mother Shara was kind enough to share his story with us.


Dylan was diagnosed at 3 with PDD-NOS, mostly because he didn’t speak. Of course he failed all of the language-based tests!  He was happy and active, reached all the milestones that as a new parent I monitored weekly if not daily, except for language. I started teaching him sign language to help him communicate without screaming and crying (me too).  From the moment he could hold a crayon, he was drawing.  Most often the characters were from the Disney Classics, Silly Symphony cartoons and the MGM production logo.  Over and over again. We watched Fantasia, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and of course The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin too many times to count, from beginning to the very end and some scenes multiple times.  Buying bulk paper at Costco and giving Dylan a never-ending supply of drawing tools was sure to give us a pathway into his world.  What Dylan couldn’t say he drew.  Without a single word, we knew what he was feeling, thinking and dreaming about.  I have every single sketch digitized so that I am not the next feature on Hoarders.

Dylan was enrolled in public school which offered all the services he needed.  Supposedly he would be in a regular classroom with “normal” kids and get pulled out for therapy.  Each year it seemed that his time in the regular classroom was less and less.  By fifth grade, Dylan spent 90% of his day in a special education classroom doing basic math and reading board books.  “He just doesn’t seem to get it,” the teacher told me.  I was then approached by the principal about the standardized testing and how an adult would take the test for Dylan while he sat nearby, “the school needs the money.”  (The principal was removed from that school shortly thereafter.)  A few expletives later we left and Dylan was enrolled at his current school, DLD Sycamore.  This school has a 5 to 1 ratio, no one gets left behind.  We also enrolled him in Kumon math and reading.  The owner wasn’t sure that a child “like Dylan” would be able to progress in the Kumon program.  Holy smokes, don’t tell me no.  Today, Dylan is on the Kumon honor roll in both subjects for three years running.

Two years ago he was evaluated again by the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico.  This time, his diagnosis was the full Autism 299.0 diagnosis.  That didn’t change anything for us.  Dylan has his routines and it’s a bit of a struggle to change the schedule.  He gets anxiety about random things so we’re learning to diffuse that.  Dylan has a lot of energy so he swims, kayaks, rides his scooter and has a nightly WWE throw down with my husband.  Most of the time he sits in his room where he is surrounded by thousands (if not millions by now) of Legos, Disney VHS tapes (we’re the only ones I know with a working VCR), plastic bath toys from all over the world (he loves eBay), paper and paints.  According to Dylan, “drawing and painting relax me and my body feels good.  I see the colors, all of the colors, and I am in the painting.”  And that is why I started the blog.  I wanted to share Dylan, mostly with friends, but now his art has been seen in thirty-four countries.  The power of social media!
That’s probably much more than you wanted to know and I could go on and on about his love of Doritos, Poore Brothers Salt and Vinegar chips and turkey bacon, water and SpongeBob.  But here in the Land of Enchantment it’s dinner time.  The troops are hungry.

Shara, from one member of the “working VCR club” to another, it’s a delight to hear about Dylan’s life. His story highlights much we encountered over the course of Owen’s education as well, including the paucity of traditional metrics for evaluating the unique strengths and weaknesses of our children and the power of drawing to draw them out.

To learn more about Dylan’s art, including a massive mural he completed, please go to artbydyl.com.

(We’re thrilled to receive submissions to the Autism Artists Project. We will continue to search out stories of talented artists with disabilities online, and we hope you will continue to send stories to us as well.)


Autism Affinities Project – Tyler Doi and Woodstock Chimes

Sometimes affinities cluster around familiar themes (anime, maps, Disney.) Other times, as in the case of Tyler Doi’s affinity for wind chimes, they are delightfully idiosyncratic.

In this video, see what happens when Tyler steps outside of his room, with its vast collection of chimes, and into the headquarters of Woodstock Chimes, whose collection is even vaster. (Woodstock, we learned, is the largest manufacturer of wind chimes in the world.) I don’t want to reveal too much, but there’s even a “Name That Chime” challenge between Tyler and Woodstock’s leader, the affable Garry Kvistad.

Reflecting on Tyler’s deep affection for the slight shifts in tone between each chime, Garry notes: “He can hear more than what most people can hear in a sound, because he’s inside of it.” Of course, this is something Alison and Sean Doi, Tyler’s parents, long understood, and rang true to us as well.

In particular, upon hearing Tyler’s story we found ourselves thinking about the time Owen met Don Hahn, who produced Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Ron wrote about this in Life, Animated:

Owen talks about his first call with Jonathan, how he told him Aladdin was about “accepting who you really are, and being okay with that,” and Don tells him that for each movie, they post the main idea above the drafting rooms to inspire the animators: ”Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” for Beauty and the Beast; Remember Who You Are” for The Lion King. All I can think of after this exchange is how Owen’s interpretation, what he sees, goes so much deeper.

“You’ve figured us out—it’s not fair,” Don laughs. But, in a moment, he sees it, too: “You see so much more in these stories than most people.”

“People with autism are everywhere, and they need to be appreciated for what they can contribute to the community,” says Jamey Wolff from the Center for Spectrum Services, who is featured in the video. We couldn’t agree more.

What stories like Tyler’s, Owen’s, and the others featured on this site make clear is that those contributions can be immense, sometimes even beyond the mental reach of neurotypical people. Why? Because those with autism often, as Don Hahn put it, “see so much more” in their areas of interest than neurotypical people.

We’ll say it again: Those with autism often “see so much more” in their areas of interest than neurotypical people. (Or hear so much more, in Tyler’s case.)

As a result of their encounter with Tyler, Woodstock Chimes developed Chimes for Autism, 100% of the net profits from which will go to autism research and treatment– “and we’re very proud of that,” says Garry.

So are we. Contact between these two worlds can be transformative. We hope more and more people will continue to realize that, and fewer and fewer people with autism will be left behind.