Antonia Lidder, a regular attendee to our Autism-Friendly screenings with her son Gabriel, previously melted our hearts with her blog on the life-enhancing power of cinema. Ahead of the release of Life, Animated this Friday we invited her to give us her thoughts on the acclaimed new documentary.
At the end of Life, Animated, the name of an executive producer leapt out at me: Sharenow. Robert Sharenow, to be precise. But as I sat, tears streaming like that emoji, it was the surname that mattered. This uncommonly beautiful, intimate, uplifting film needs to be shared. Now.
In our divisive, scapegoating, ‘them as other’ era, here is a film of universal connectivity and appeal, yet it centres on a young man with autism.
Why do I say ‘yet’? Well, because people with autism are supposed to be unfeeling automatons, empty-of-empathy humanoids, lacking imagination, and without desire or ability to form bonds with others.
That’s what we’re told, anyhow.
It’s not only a perception in popular culture; it’s the belief of many ill-informed health professionals too. I know this: I’m a doctor, and I have a son with autism. I’ve encountered (mis)perceptions of autism from both sides of the doctor-patient relationship.
Yet here is Life, Animated, exploding these myths as outdated, damaging and cruel. The film is the story of Owen Suskind, who lost the ability to speak whilst a toddler, was diagnosed with autism, and was given some ominous prognoses by some involved in his professional care. His mother Cornelia describes that time as “completely devastating”; I remember it so well. The diagnostic fallout so devastated our family, we drifted down the corridors of Great Ormond Street Hospital as if shell-shocked, sat in the chapel sobbing whilst we tried to grasp what our ‘new’ life would look like once we’d reassembled the pieces of our shattered reality, then within days we fled to Montana just to escape – it was the emptiest place that sprang to mind in the heat of our distress.
Ours was not an uncommon reaction (well, maybe the Montana bit, though Rupert Isaacson made it all the way to Mongolia): there have been books, poems, films, and many parents secretly crying in showers and in the dark corners of the house, all in response to the hammer-to-the-head pain of hearing that diagnosis, and the bleak picture that is either given or instinctively imbued in the collective unconscious. We were lucky: the Great Ormond Street staff were compassionate and emotionally intelligent, and they prepared us as best they could, though nothing really prepares you for that moment… but how must it be for all those less fortunate families out there? Especially when all anyone ever thinks of regarding autism is the Pavlovian response – Rain Man.
But Life, Animated explodes the fallacy that autism ‘robs’ people of the ability to feel, think and care. It’s a truly joyous cinematic journey, witnessing the Suskinds’ discovery that Owen was always communicating (just using a different – Disney – language). Their love and pride is life-affirming and envelops the viewer in warmth. But the success of the film doesn’t lie with the relatable Suskind parents, nor even in the affecting juxtaposition of sketched art alongside real footage. It’s not the director’s Academy Award-winning pedigree. It’s not the calibre of the source material – the book Life, Animated, written by Owen’s father, a Pulitzer Prize winner.
It is not even the irresistible narrative of hope, or the tenderness of allowing us to witness love defying scientific norms and expectations.
No. The reason Life, Animated has won both the popular and electoral college vote* sits squarely on the broad shoulders of Owen Suskind. As the film carries viewers through genuinely magical moments, all the way to Owen’s present-day romantic and professional lives, we are privileged to witness his wonder as he literally experiences film. And as we fall for the biggest-hearted, most open-to-wonder, most endearing film subject I have ever seen, we are also party to the wisdom, pain and generosity of young-but-old Walt Suskind, Owen’s 26-year-old brother. The Suskind brothers remind us that the world is better for being neurodiverse. Indeed, as Owen’s parents ask “Who decides what a meaningful life is?” I gulp emotion and think… if only more people had the heart and soul of Owen.
I cried at parts through the film. At other times, my chest was tight. Pain is hard to watch, but when you know that pain, when you recognise and feel every turbulent day and sleepless night of it, the film becomes less a spectator activity and more an emotional exorcism. For people without a loved one with autism, the cinematic experience will be one more of inspiration, fascination and joy.
My own son was also diagnosed with autism when he was three. My son was also non-verbal. We experienced the trauma of paediatrician appointments where he was ignored; others where he was dismissed as speaking ‘gibberish’; one where the doctor pulled a face and gesticulated, “Look! He doesn’t even know what a banana is. He’s one of the worst I’ve come across”; and many, many, many where he was dissected, divided and diminished as if he wasn’t even in the room.
We were heartbroken. Exactly as Dr Rosenblatt outlines in Life, Animated, autism professionals “shattered [our] ideal vision of who this child is going to become”. We also saw our son, and others, “observed like guinea pigs”. We too had Ron Suskind’s desperate inner whisper, urging our child on… you can do it, you can do it, please just do it. Please.
For us, just as with the Suskinds, the breakthrough came with animation. In our case it was the epically beautiful Frankenweenie – please read a short bit I wrote about our experience here.
Gabriel’s reaction to Frankenweenie was the brain-shake that we needed. The astonishing realisation that Gabriel was exactly the thinking, feeling, sophisticated, achingly sensitive little boy some medics denied he could be was a call to arms. And now the fact that it ever seemed astonishing is astonishing in itself! We know this beautiful boy inside out, and with each successive response to film we have seen, Gabriel teaches us more and more how wrong and damaging limited-scope diagnoses can be, how small knowledge of autism is, how evidence-based medicine only works when there is the ability to have a substantial body of quantifiable evidence behind it and, above all else, how we must always presume competence. Our neurotypical way of understanding what communication sounds and looks like, what visual signs indicate a person is listening and learning, are simply that – only ours.
And, of course, just like the Suskinds, we must fight, and work, and love.
Many of my most joyous moments with Gabriel have been in the cinema. We now take him anywhere between six times a month and six times a week, travelling an hour from our rural home to our nearest Picturehouse Cinema, and driving to Birmingham every six weeks so we can catch films that have stopped showing in Devon.
In contrast with the pervasive belief that people with autism lack empathy (thoroughly debunked by true experts in autism, such as Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor David Skuse, and many autistic writers and speakers, Owen included), Gabriel’s first reaction to Sparky’s death went on to be replicated with many other films. The first time we saw Wreck-It Ralph Gabriel was so intensely distressed by the mean girls bullying Vanellope, we had to leave the theatre. In Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 Gabriel cried every time Flint Lockwood’s colleagues humiliated him. Every time. Even years down the line. He chooses to watch the film, and refuses to look away; he bears witness to Flint Lockwood’s pain, the same pain that Gabriel himself has experienced at the hands of some bullying children and adults.
But we have also used film to teach Gabriel communication. And he has moved from a boy who had 15 words to one with a vocabulary of several hundred. We have our own version of Owen’s ‘Disney Club’: rather inventively, ours has always been called ‘Film Club’.** We watch a film with a small group of neurotypical children who gather to support Gabriel, then re-enact scenes that we have watched. We have used dozens and dozens of films for affinity therapy*** – from Goosebumps to Brave to The Muppets to Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. We choose particular words or concepts we’d like to teach Gabriel that feature in a film he has particularly enjoyed, create small laminated pictures to symbolise that word, and then re-enact the scenes after Gabriel places the pictures on a sentencepi strip. Such a sentence strip might read something like this, for example:
‘I want / to play / Abby / looks like / a deflating / balloon.’
In this way we start building an understanding of the concept ‘looks like’, teach the new concept of ‘deflating’, grow awareness that people have names such as ‘Abby’ (Melissa McCarthy in Ghostbusters), and continue to develop the vital social and communications skills of joint attention and social interaction, all whilst having a riot with imaginary play and performing.
We have done the same with complex, abstract ideas such as emotions. Inside Out was great for this. Homer Simpson was invaluable in teaching the meaning of ‘hurt’. ParaNorman and the angler fish of Finding Nemo taught Gabriel how to express ‘I’m scared.’ Monsters University is teaching him to try to be quiet (if possible) in libraries. The Smurfs taught good versus bad… and ‘taxi’ and ‘squashed’ and ‘wizard’ and what a birthday party looks like. The Muppets has taught the dangers of electricity – a really challenging abstract notion, and critical for a child with a lack of understanding of danger. And all of these films, and more, have taught Gabriel how to interpret what happens around him, how he feels inside, and what is done to him by others. And for a child born without words, who struggles desperately to communicate what we all take for granted – love, pain, fear, excitement, what/why/where/when/how – film has given him the currency of communication and knowledge. Gabriel is still classed as non-verbal, or more accurately as minimally verbal, yet the sentences he can pull from his memorised library of more than 300 films means that he can often appropriately use a complex quotation to convey his wants, needs and feelings.
Sometimes this is with heartbreaking effect. I will never forget the physical constriction I felt when, one day, Gabriel became really upset over being unable to tolerate the various tops I was trying due to an intense new aversion to cuffed sleeves. Through floods of tears, he stood stock still in front of me and found a way to articulate what he was feeling:
“I’m grumpy, I spit, I wake up on the wrong side of the bed. I’m just different apparently. I’m sorry.”
Internally, I crumpled. The ‘I’m sorry’ was Gabriel’s addition; the rest of the words belong to Ash from Fantastic Mr Fox. How painful that felt, to hear this gentle, loving child recognise his difference and apologise for it, for being born with autism.
Film-speak is our vernacular now. Whatever new concept we’d like Gabriel to learn, we think of a film and use it. In the days ahead we’ll be heavily reliant on Arthur Christmas, Rise Of The Guardians, The Polar Express and Home Alone.
Currently, in speech therapy and at school and home, a knowledge of the concept of ‘place’ is being developed through us jumping into the worlds of Mr Peabody And Sherman for Egypt, Scooby-Doo for Rome, Dr Strange and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them for New York, and Paddington and Minions for London.
But the greatest value of film for us as parents is in easing Gabriel’s pain. Anxiety is part and parcel of living with autism; it is simply the degree of anxiety that varies, and how recognised it is by the neurotypical folk around the autistic individual. Gabriel suffers from severe anxiety, and really severe sensory processing issues. These mean that the world is often more than overwhelming for him: it is painful. In times of abject, gut-wrenching distress, our most powerful soother is film. We carry scenes in our heads, as other parents dispense kiss-it-betters. So when Gabriel starts to be engulfed by the pain that is closing in on him, we throw out phrases like rescue rings and hope that they catch him, and more often than not, they do:
“Uh oh, Gabriel. Remy and the Ghost Chef are on the roof! Remy’s angry at Linguine – ‘Oh no! This is terrible! He’s ruining the soup! … It’s your restaurant! Do something!’ … ‘What do you want me to do? I am a figment of your imagination!’” – Ratatouille
One of the especially moving scenes in Life, Animated is when we see Owen’s ‘Disney Club’. The magic of cinema is evident – a tangible presence in the room that reaches from the screen and engulfs the viewer too. Owen’s eyes are so expressive as they light up with the intensity of his feel for each Disney film. But it is not just him; the room is full of other young adults with neurodevelopmental disorders, laughing, cheering, debating, expressing, internalising the messages and emotions of the script and their friends. The scene is married perfectly with the Disney scene they are watching, but I’m not going to spoil it – watch it and let the meaning steal your breath and swell your heart.
Owen identifies with sidekicks, we hear. His sketchbook is empty of heroes, but I found myself thinking that was because he is every hero. He has magic and love and bravery and honesty and humour and strength in spades.
My own son, Gabriel, is the mightiest and sweetest little warrior. In a world that baffles and bewilders and frequently berates, he remains loving and gentle and curious.
He has taken up the words of Dory’s parents to encourage himself. When facing a trial, he will murmur to himself, “You can do it, cupcake,” and he will try. And that’s a message to us all – try: be open, be loving, feel wonder, embrace others. And when you come across someone with autism, do not be afraid; they are fighting every day to survive in ‘our’ world, often with the most wonderful humour and sense of awe. Help build bridges simply – even if it’s just ‘hello’ and a smile as you move on. You can do it, cupcake.
But first things first: watch Life, Animated and share. Now.
*Life, Animated has won widespread critical acclaim and prizes at Sundance, San Francisco International Film Festival and the Full Frame Film Festival. The documentary lands in cinemas on Friday 9 December. Book tickets.
**DVDs of your choice are provided by Into Film and their Film Club project – available to all schools, for clubs led by parents or educators using film as an educational tool. For those wishing to use film for children with special educational needs, Into Film provides substantial resource packs and ideas.
***Ron Suskind coined this phrase, and it extends to the use of any special interest, be it film or the London Underground or bells or aeroplanes. Further work and therapy using film as the special affinity to access the child’s world is being done by Enda Dodd and colleagues through Animated Language Learning, and all affinities are utilised by the Horse Boy World team led by Rupert Isaacson. All can be reached for advice and access through their websites.
Picturehouse Cinemas run regular screenings aimed at families with children on the autism spectrum or with other special communication needs. These screenings are adapted in a variety of ways to help reduce anxiety and ensure a safe, enjoyable cinema experience. During the film, lights are left on low and the volume is reduced to ease the impact for those with any sensory difficulties, and it is fine for the audience to move around, make a noise or take a break from the screening if needed. We strive to provide a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere.
More information ask in cinema. You can also get in touch with the Picturehouse Community and Education team via Twitter.
Life, Animated is in cinemas from Friday 9 December. Find your cinema and book tickets.
Life, Animated tells the remarkable story of how an autistic boy named Owen found a pathway to language and a framework for making sense of the world through Disney animations. A moving coming-of-age tale.