On Saturday, January 10th, Ron was featured as the key speaker at the “Disney Effect” talk at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The event, which was chalk full of like-minded families bonded together by this astounding shared experience, explored the phenomenon in which so many ASD children like Owen learn to connect to the world via the animated movies to which they are naturally drawn. Suskind family friend Jonathan Freeman, an extraordinary actor who is known for voicing Jafar in Aladdin among many other achievements (and whom many of you will remember fondly from the book) was among those up on stage with Ron.
Family after family approached us afterwards to share their stories; each one a vital new narrative on the same significant theme – what a lifeboat these affinities are for children with autism. One such story comes from parents Doug and Laura, who sent us a follow-up note about their daughter Julie. Like Owen, Julie received a regressive autism diagnosis after beginning life with neurotypical development – and just like with Owen, Disney movies remained the one constant from before and after the symptoms manifested. We will let Doug and Laura tell Julie’s story in their own words:
Julie was born a happy, healthy baby in 1984. She loved to be read (Goodnight Moon at the top of the list), loved her ABC’s, loved to count to 10 out loud – it appeared our second girl was off to a wonderfully normal start in life.
Around 18 months, she abruptly lost all language and had scant interest in being held or read to. At the request of the physician at Oakland Children’s Hospital, my wife brought in Polaroid’s of each month’s baby pictures, and around 18 months she would not look into the camera. Two separate diagnoses finally confirmed autism (which at that time was a little more rare than childhood blindness: 1 in 10,000 births). Her prognosis was grim – she would not regain language, would likely never bond to us, and we would have to seriously consider placement well before age 10. The one constant in her life since those early days was her love of Disney, particularly the classics from the very early years (to this day, non-verbal Dumbo reigns supreme). True to the diagnosis, even with intense one-on-one therapy from a little over age 2, she was effectively non-verbal.
At age 5, we decided to take both girls to Disneyland, which included a private session with her favorite characters at Disneyland’s City Hall that we arranged through a friend who worked at the resort. I remember how confused and agitated she was as we waited patiently in the courtyard for the appearance of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Dumbo. Once they entered, she raced from our arms, quietly greeting each character and seeking a hug.
Doug and Laura couldn’t believe their ears. Their daughter, non-verbal for the past three and half years, could speak after all – to the characters she loved:
We were stunned to hear that voice that was stilled for so long. The breakthrough with Dumbo was simply amazing – she gently grabbed his trunk and softly voiced “let’s go Dumbo!” They circled around that courtyard several times – just the two of them as we observed at a distance, tears in our eyes. Since then, Disney was the bridge that we still use to joyfully connect with her.
Julie lives with us, a happy 30 year old that loves attending her adult educational and vocational program from 8 to 3 daily, loves her family, and loves – will always love – Disney.
Thank you Doug, Laurie and Julie – and all the other families who sought us out this weekend – for sharing your story.