Life can feel like a daunting task for those living with autism. This is exactly how Ron Suskind felt for his son Owen, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3 in the early 1990s. Owen's road to wellness and "normal life" seemed impossible, but the Suskind family embraced the challenge, and discovered hope, humility and a spirit of adventure along the way.
American journalist and best-selling author Suskind wrote the book Life, Animated and subsequent New York Times article Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney, detailing his family’s 20-year journey navigating Owen’s diagnosis. Through the power of classic Disney films, Owen developed an affinity that the family called "Disney therapy." Owen learned to communicate, empathize and navigate emotions through songs and dialogue in classics like The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid. Suskind and a team of doctors and therapists also learned to communicate with Owen in Disney character voices, and saw improvement every day.
Owen, now 29 years old, is doing quite well thanks to the support of his family. His love for Disney continues, and he has found ways to lead a joyful, fulfilling life. "A big part of what Owen taught us is that we are all different from one another," says Suskind. "He has taught us to embrace the diversity of the human experience, especially through his eyes."
Addressing and accommodating mental health issues has become an integral part of Suskind's work. "The support these people need is no different from living in a home that has air conditioning," says Suskind. "It allows us to be more capable and productive." Suskind has developed two programs, The Affinity Project and Sidekick, which help normalize the passionate behavior people with autism exhibit. "We are all so diverse, and should embrace the concept of neuro-diversity, or differently abled people," says Suskind. "One out of 4 people is considered neuro-diverse. They are just like us.
"I always tell people that we are living in an era so ready to affix labels to everything," says Suskind. "But people are not labels." Labels can often perpetuate stigma and keep those struggling from finding help they need, whether dealing with autism, depression and anxiety or a variety of mental health issues. "People often work hard to fix their issues, but sometimes we don't get fixed," Suskind says. "We just need to find a way to live, and realize that is a powerful expression of who we are."
Suskind will share his story and how to address mental health issues alongside speakers Kathy Cronkite and Steve Ford at the Inspiring Hope Dinner, an event by Sarasota nonprofit Sunshine From Darkness on Saturday, March 14. Sunshine From Darkness raises funds for mental health research and local resources.
The Sunshine From Darkness Inspiring Hope Dinner is on Saturday, March 14 from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Ritz Carlton, 1111 Ritz Carlton Drive, Sarasota. Tickets can be purchased here, or call (941) 927-8900 ext. 1113.