Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney

In our first year in Washington, our son disappeared.

Just shy of his 3rd birthday, an engaged, chatty child, full of typical speech — “I love you,” “Where are my Ninja Turtles?” “Let’s get ice cream!” — fell silent. He cried, inconsolably. Didn’t sleep. Wouldn’t make eye contact. His only word was “juice.”

I had just started a job as The Wall Street Journal’s national affairs reporter. My wife, Cornelia, a former journalist, was home with him — a new story every day, a new horror. He could barely use a sippy cup, though he’d long ago graduated to a big-boy cup. He wove about like someone walking with his eyes shut. “It doesn’t make sense,” I’d say at night. “You don’t grow backward.” Had he been injured somehow when he was out of our sight, banged his head, swallowed something poisonous? It was like searching for clues to a kidnapping.

After visits to several doctors, we first heard the word “autism.” Later, it would be fine-tuned to “regressive autism,” now affecting roughly a third of children with the disorder. Unlike the kids born with it, this group seems typical until somewhere between 18 and 36 months — then they vanish. Some never get their speech back. Families stop watching those early videos, their child waving to the camera. Too painful. That child’s gone.

A 12-year-old Owen at Walt Disney World.

From the Suskind family

In the year since his diagnosis, Owen’s only activity with his brother, Walt, is something they did before the autism struck: watching Disney movies. “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” — it was a boom time for Disney — and also the old classics: “Dumbo,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi.” They watch on a television bracketed to the wall in a high corner of our smallish bedroom in Georgetown. It is hard to know all the things going through the mind of our 6-year-old, Walt, about how his little brother, now nearly 4, is changing. They pile up pillows on our bed and sit close, Walt often with his arm around Owen’s shoulders, trying to hold him — and the shifting world — in place.

Then Walt slips out to play with friends, and Owen keeps watching. Movie after movie. Certain parts he rewinds and rewatches. Lots of rewinding. But he seems

Published by Jimmy Kilpatrick
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Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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