I LOVE the radio program “Radiolab” and I always feel I learn something important. They recently replayed an audience favorite episode about autism. The hosts spoke with experts, parents of children with autism and people with autism. All of those conversations related to the main focus of the episode – Life, Animated. It is a book written by Ron Suskind sharing his family’s experience with autism and the way they “found” their son through the magic of Disney animated films. The book itself was released as a film by the same name in July of 2016 so you have two different ways to check it out!
One of the autism experts interviewed on the show, who also has a child with autism, was careful to caution against thinking that just because this approach worked for one child it would work for every child with autism. I think that is a valid and important point. There is no known cause or “cure” for autism and different approaches in helping those with autism have varying degrees of success. But what struck me most was how this story simply reinforces for me the importance of storytelling and music to help children learn empathy and to help all of us connect to the human experience.
Owen Suskind, the child with autism and the subject of Life, Animated, started showing signs of autism at the age of 3. The only thing that held his attention were Disney films. He would watch them repeatedly, rewinding and re-watching certain parts and ultimately using the dialogue from the movies to connect to his family who would respond in kind by reciting dialogue from the movies or go “off book” but still use the voice and persona of the characters. Owen is now in his 20s and can have a coherent conversation without the aid of Disney characters but the question of how independent he will ultimately be is still in question.
What Ron Suskind and many autism experts surmise is that those with autism have trouble understanding human interaction. They thrive on routine and yet interactions with humans are unpredictable. By watching stories of interaction repeatedly, Owen was able to analyze the interaction of the characters. In addition, much of this interaction is accompanied by music. As Dr. Geraldine Dawson of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development explained, brain scans have shown that music lights up the emotional centers of the brain. When those with autism are scanned during interactions with people those areas do not light up the like the typical brain would, but they do when they listen to music. Their brains respond to music as the typical brain responds giving them the same emotional response. The thinking is that not only could Owen study how characters interacted but the underlying music helped him connect the appropriate emotion with the interaction. When his older brother was crying after his 9th birthday party, Owen who was only 6 said, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan.” This was a complex sentence containing complex thought and the first of its kind as far as his family knew. Owen demonstrated that he understood the plot of The Jungle Book and Peter Pan and could create an analogy between those two characters and his brother.
This amazing story reminds me that there is power in story whether it be a book, a movie or a play; there is power in re-experiencing story; there is power in music to elicit common emotions and there is power in integrating the various arts because they can strengthen the impact of the message and the experience. It also reminds me that those who do not learn “typically” provide us educators with a unique opportunity to find ways to better teach all learners and that the arts can help.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.