Ever heard of Disney therapy?

In addition to the triumph of La La Land at this year's Oscars (even if it didn't make the final cut for "Best Film"), another film nominated in the "Best Documentary" category deserves some attention. The film tells the true story of Owen, a young boy suddenly struck by autism at the age of 3 who gradually regains normal functioning thanks to Walt Disney cartoons. It offers both a moving story and a message of hope.

Life, Animated is a documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams, adapted from the novel by Ron Suskind, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism. The author, a well-known American journalist and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of how he was able to reconnect with his autistic son through Peter Pan, Aladdin and other Disney characters.

Up until the age of 3, Owen was a lively boy, living a normal life and was already a fan of Disney. But Owen suddenly began losing his motor faculties (clumsiness, an unsteady gait), linguistic abilities (loss of vocabulary, comprehension difficulties) and social capacities (gaze avoidance, staring). A diagnosis was finally given: regressive autism. Owen’s parents saw their world falling apart and remained in denial for some time before trying to build a new relationship with their child. Instead of trying to make Owen enter our world, the parents decided to enter his. While he stopped communicating between the ages of 3 and 6, he continued to be a big fan of Disney, watching the cartoons over and over again. His parents thought that the movies didn't just entertain their son; they believed he was able to grasp their meaning. That’s how his father got the idea of establishing contact with Owen through one of his favorite stuffed animals (the parrot from Aladdin). Unbelievable as it may seem, he was able to begin a dialogue with the now 6-year-old Owen. Beginning with this revelation, the family started spending their evenings reenacting particular scenes, taking on different Disney characters. By entering Owen’s world, little by little, his parents were able to give Owen a way of expressing himself in theirs.

Gradually Owen was able to overcome his autism-related handicaps. He developed the ability to express his feelings and maintain eye contact with others. But the progress didn’t end there… in addition to wanting to repeatedly reenact certain scenes that he was particularly fond of, Ron noticed that his son is also interested in the credits. He realized that Owen, motivated by a desire to know the names of the professionals that designed the cartoons he loved, was learning to read! By "speaking Disney,” Owen became passionate about writing and performed well in school. He began developing his talents as a cartoonist, his favorite subject being the supporting Disney roles, those that help the heroes find their destiny. Today Owen is independent; he lives in an apartment and holds two jobs: working at a movie theater and as a host for a local radio show.

Though he doesn’t deny the traditional and recognized methods used by therapists to help autistic children, with the help of Dr. Dan Griffin, Ron Suskind has developed a therapeutic protocol (under validation), initially named “Disney Therapy.” It is now called “Affinity Therapy" in order to encompass the wide diversity of passions seen in autistic children. In this approach, these passions aren't seen as obsessions, but as keys that can be used to open the door to their world.
Source: http://actualites.nouvelobs.com/sante/20170307.OBS6226/comment-mowgli-et-peter-pan-ont-aide-un-jeune-autiste-a-sortir-du-silence.html; March 2017.

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