As a young married man, I do not recall ever praying to have a boy or a girl, but I do remember praying for a healthy child. My parents had a Downs Syndrome child and I understood viscerally what that means to parents. It changes their lives forever. Every decision made has to factor in what the consequences are for the special needs child. Life is no longer “business as usual.”
I was reminded of this as I watched Life, Animated, a fascinating look at Owen Suskind, an autistic child, and his parents Ron and Cornelia who confront a challenge when Owen develops autism at the age of three. Owen becomes anti-social, withdraws from human connection, and ceases to talk. The symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as a form of autism.
Faced with the prospect of having a child with whom they will be unable to communicate, Ron and Cornelia begin to lose hope for the future until one day they discover that Owen is learning about life and how to speak from watching animated Disney movies. It is an “aha” moment for the parents who suddenly see light at the end of the therapeutic tunnel.
Owen begins to speak, to read, and eventually to write by learning the dialogue in all of Disney’s animated movies. Watching the films even gives him a way to interpret the behavior of other people. He can deduce appropriate human responses to social situations by reading the visual cues present in the normal conversation of cartoon characters and, by extension, in real human beings. What becomes clear through therapy is that the stories and characters of Disney cartoon features stay the same, and this gives Owen a sense of security. Watching Disney movies is not a cure for autism; rather, it is one idiosyncratic avenue of therapy that works for Owen and perhaps others.
The notion that sameness and routine can be therapeutic is one way to view Jewish ritual. Beverly Jacobson, a special needs school head in London, writes: “Jewish ritual has a beneficial role to play in treating autism sufferers. The structure of the religion itself has a very powerful positive effect on children with autism. The rituals create a huge sense of security around them.”
Benay Josselson, a parent of an autistic child, decided to send her child to a Jewish day school, and in her instance, it worked out well. Part of the reason was the school’s positive attitude towards inclusion of its special needs population. Moreover, the school’s teaching of Jewish rituals provided a stable and comfortable environment for his learning. Daily prayer and observance of Jewish holy days also served to embed religious behaviors in its special needs students who appreciated the positive results of daily routines.
Life, Animated is an unusual film, giving the viewer a taste of what it is like to have a family member with autism. There are no easy panaceas, but the movie clearly indicates that solutions of some kind may be found within the confines of a loving family willing to think out of the box for answers.
Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, never give up on Owen. They obtain the necessary help to navigate Owen’s life as a young man and they continue that support as he attains manhood. Sensing their own mortality and inability to support him when they are no longer here, they try their best to enable him to live independently.
That is the endgame of parenting for all parents who want to see their children thrive and manage life on their own. In their eyes, Owen leads a meaningful life, even it is not conventional. One of characters in the film asks: “who decides what a meaningful life is?” The answer is not the same for everyone. It depends on who we are, what are our God-given talents, and the support we have from family and friends.