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Autism spectrum disorder, Disney and a breakthrough

Author John W. Barry
Date May 16, 2016

STAATSBURG – “Sleeping Beauty” came at bedtime.

“Lady and the Tramp” and “101 Dalmations” came with walking Annie, the family dog.

Those were just two of the ways that Ron Suskind, his wife and his son, Walt, connected with their younger son, Owen. Nearing his third birthday, Owen, “a seemingly typical, chatty child,” according to www.ronsuskind.com, “became mute.”

Owen Suskind, now 25, was diagnosed with autism. As a child, he later memorized 50 Disney animated movies — and that served as a catalyst for communication.

“If you throw him a line, he’ll throw you back the next line,” Suskind, an author, former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, said Saturday, recalling the breakthrough. “We can converse in Disney dialogue…He says almost nothing else but dialogue.”

Suskind, a Kingston native and author of “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” shared his story Saturday at the Anderson Center for Autism. The occasion was a conference, Autism Tomorrow, that attracted 80 people and, among other offerings, featured several speakers.

Eliza Bozenski, director of the Foundation at Anderson Center for Autism, who oversaw the conference, said its goal was to “support our community.”

“We have a responsibility to the broader community to educate, to broaden awareness, to debunk myths that might be out there,” Bozenski said.

Autism, according to the Anderson Center, is a complex neurobiological disorder characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, as well as repetitive behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

Diane Frisenda’s 23-year-old daughter lives in an Anderson Center for Autism residence and participates in an Anderson Center program, both in Ulster County.

A Beacon resident, Frisenda attended the conference to network with other parents and increase her involvement with the Anderson Center. She said she learned a lot.

“There’s little bits and pieces, all the way through,” she said. “I’m going to take what I learned today and bring it to the table with my daughter.”

Frisenda was looking forward to hearing Suskind speak. And he was able to take his family’s experience with Disney films and use it as an example of how to build a bridge.

Looking back on the experience, he said, “We all get Ph.D.s in Disney and we start working it.”

Addressing the audience, Suskind continued, “Look, you can do it yourself. It’s a matching game. It’s what our community does with their affinities, their powerful, self-directed interests. That’s part of what characterizes autism. Match it up.”

John W. Barry: jobarry@poughkeepsiejournal.com, 845-437-4822, Twitter: @JohnBarryPoJo


Visit www.poughkeepsiejournal.com to watch a video report on Ron Suskind and the Anderson Center for Autism.