I rarely watch films, but last week, on an eleven-hour flight en route to the One Solution Conference in Cape Town, I indulged in a heart-warming and powerful documentary called Life.
Life tells the story of Owen Suskind, a lively, talkative and engaging boy until he’s diagnosed with severe autism at the age of three. Owen suddenly withdraws into a silent world which is devastating for his devoted parents and older sibling. He doesn’t utter a single comprehensible word for the next four years.
Then, shortly before his seventh birthday, something astonishing occurs. Out of the blue, Owen remarks to his older brother, Walter, who was feeling sad on his birthday, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, just like Mowgli or Peter Pan.” This was a remarkably perceptive insight for any child, let alone one with apparently severe cognitive limitations. And so began a new way for Owen to communicate with the world and engage with the people in his life. This inspirational story is a powerful testament to the intelligence and wisdom that is operating within all of us no matter how dire and hopeless the situation appears.
Walt Disney films became Owen’s keyhole to reconnecting with the outside world. Not only did he re-discover language and empathy through the animated movies, but the films also gave Owen a sense of purpose and belonging because of his deep identification with the “sidekick” characters. (These are characters generally regarded as subordinate to the main character they accompany. Think Donkey for Shrek or Tonto for The Lone Ranger.)
Owen’s story reminded me of the fact that the past does not exist as a barrier to our present. We are truly only experiencing Thought in each moment. And contained in each moment is a microcosm of perfection and potential that is infinite and unknown. Thus, it should be no surprise to us that Owen’s first words after such a long hiatus of communication were not “mommy” or “daddy”, rather a complex sentence replete with deep insight into his brother’s emotional world.
Owen owns a copy of every Disney film ever made; he knows each one of them by heart. By design, Walt Disney characters over-express their emotions and facial expressions. This helps Owen understand them in a way that is far less obscure than trying to read human facial expressions. Ironic as it sounds, Disney characters leave nothing to the imagination. They bring feelings of love, loss, joy, rejection, fear, hope and the full range of the emotional spectrum to the surface.
The documentary depicts Owen immersed in watching Dumbo, the famous flying elephant of the 1940’s cartoon film, as he leaves his family home on the eve of Owens own transition to independent living. He, like Dumbo, grasps that he has the capacity to make the transition to growing up, departing the family nest and finding his wings. We also see Owen watch Bambi tragically lose his mother to cruel hunters, as he spends his first night alone in his own flat without his mother to take care of him. We observe how the documentary’s central protagonist takes in the words of the Little Mermaid’s crab Sebastian, before graduating from Riverview School. “Well, it’s like I always say, your Majesty, children got to be free to live their own lives.”
Owen identifies with the sidekicks in the films he watches, resonating with their position as never quite the main character and often pushed aside or even bullied for their differences. Yet the sidekicks become a source of great insight for Owen. His mind, via the power of Thought, finds peace within, knowing that those on the so-called “side-lines” are integral to the bigger story. There is always more than meets the eye. With the steadfast support of his loving and hopeful family, Owen makes great progress. He demonstrates remarkable insight into his own emotional world and understands the limitations of how he appears in the eyes of others.
The films reviewers remark that Disney could not prepare Owen for his disappointments and the nuances of life’s day to day challenges. But I saw Owen react exactly as I or any other person would to these challenges. He experienced fear when in the misunderstanding that the unknown is scary. He was devastated when he thought love could only be experienced within a particular relationship, and that the end of that relationship signalled the end of love. He was anxious when preparing to write a speech to deliver in front of a large audience (I can relate to this one!). And he felt off balance by not knowing what others wanted from him.
These common “life” scenarios might have looked more pronounced when experienced by Owen. But they are all a part of human living. When we mistakenly feel at the effect of our circumstances, we seem to momentarily lose our way. We get frightened and feel lost and hopeless. Owen is no different to me and you in that way.
And like me and you, Owen finds his way again and again. He is deeply insightful. He is deeply connected. He sees from within. He finds his way to connect from within his consciousness via Disney as a medium to the outside world. His mind uncovers an incredibly intelligent way – so incredible that documentary footage is required to make it believable – to give him a doorway to the world outside. It is so heart-warming and reassuring to realise how we are all finding our way, tripping over our own psychological misunderstandings and being picked up by our own in the moment insight as she straightens us up and dusts us off.
This is a tale of resilience: a resilient boy, growing into a resilient man, creating a network of resilient autistic friends with a resilient family in the background and foreground.
Towards the end of the documentary, Owen’s father poignantly asks: “Who gets to say what a meaningful life is?”
There is great hope and healing in Owen’s remarkable story. We would all do well to bear this in mind and to recall the profound words with which my friend and colleague, Dr Bill Petit, concluded his address at the One Solution Conference:
“A diagnosis is where you are, not who you are!”