IMAGINE being trapped inside a Disney movie and having to learn about life, language, and emotion mostly from animated characters dancing across a screen of color. A fantasy? A nightmare?
Actually, it’s the real-life story of Owen Suskind, who is the son of the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ron Suskind and his irrepressible wife, Cornelia.
Owen is also a boy with autism, which now affects an astonishing one in every one hundred children. While America’s two million autistic people are just as diverse as the wider population, many possess a subtle weave of gifts and challenges that, year by year, are revealing underlying—and often unrecognized—capacities of the human mind. What the journey of this boy and his family powerfully reveals: how, in darkness, we literally need stories to survive.
Here’s how this survival story begins. Just shy of his third birthday, a seemingly typical, chatty child became mute. He suddenly didn’t sleep or eat, and cried inconsolably. His only solace: the Disney animated movies he loved before the autism struck. But they had changed, too—they’d become gibberish, because the boy’s ability to understand speech had also vanished. So he memorized them, dozens of them, based on sound alone. What follows are a series of startling breakthroughs, as, for years, the family began to communicate with their lost son in movie dialogue. Recite one line, he’d look you in the eye and recite the next. But was he understanding?
His parents dove down “Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole,” as one autism specialist said, “to rescue a child.” But it soon became unclear who rescued whom, as they and their older son, Walt, literally had to become animated characters, forced to contemplate the deepest meanings of iconic myths—the stories people have long told themselves to make their way in the world—just to keep up. Because a startling truth began to take shape across a frenetic, harrowing, raucous decade: in the land of imagination, a “left behind” boy, murmuring under his breath, was king. The creator of worlds.
In fact, their young son had invented a language to express love and loss, the bonds between brothers, the nature of beauty, and the true meaning of the words “happily ever after.”
At its core, this brilliantly crafted narrative—written by the father, but shaped by his wife and children—isn’t about autism or Disney, though you’ll never view either one quite the same, again. It’s the story of a family’s resilience when their world is turned upside down. It’s about perseverance and hope.
A child disappeared into confusion, frustration, and silence. But deep inside his dark cave of isolation, he and his family began to dig for diamonds, working year by year, trial by trial, on a most improbable project: to find a way each of us can learn to animate our lives.
And live our most fervent dreams, whatever unexpected shape they take.