'Mapping the substructures of common affinities for ASD population to create tools for intellectual and emotional growth'

March 12, 2014

Ron Suskind
Senior Fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University

A central feature of the ASD profile is intense focus on narrow interests, creating ongoing dilemmas for parents and professionals to draw a line between passion and obsession, productive inquiry and perseveration. What twenty years of trial and error, and regular consult with therapists, clinicians and – in recent years – researchers indicates: our son, with professional and parental guidance, used his affinity for animated movies — predominantly from "hyper-systemizing" complex situational and emotionally-laden films from Disney and matching them external stimuli — to develop features of "inner speech" (Vygotsky) that augmented executive function and emotional management. This seems to be true for other same-aged ASD children I've reported about, now in their early 20s, and a first generation that had available technology (VCR) to repeatedly view chosen videos as a way to compensate for delays in auditory processing. It may have also involved a measurable neuronal compensation for ASD deficits in corollary discharge and mirror neurons, raising questions about whether such deficits can be ameliorated therapeutically and, if so, how methodologies might be developed.

Mr. Suskind’s latest work is 'Life, Animated, A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,' a remarkable account of his family's two decade struggle with autism. A few years after the son, Owen, was struck with autism at age three, losing all speech, the Suskinds realized he had memorized dozens of Disney movies. They began to converse with him in movie dialogue and eventually helped the boy turn the iconic characters and stories in powerful tools for intellectual and emotional growth. The book is both memoir and methodology, a testimony to power of story — engaging the hearts of diverse readers — while being embraced by experts and professionals as a advance in understanding the uses of so-called "affinities" embraced by so many on the autism spectrum.