“Life, Animated” and the Power of Affinities

On my *10 hour* flight to London from San Francisco the other day, I took a break from my typical long-flight-snoozefest to watch “Life, Animated” (thank you, Virgin Atlantic, for your excellent array of movie choices!). I didn’t understand my former ABA co-workers’ excitement to see the film back when it previewed at a local indie movie theater, but now I totally get it: here was an incredibly charming young man on the spectrum, and he was on the big screen (and it wasn’t “Rain Man” (1988)!). Public conscience is shifting — the mainstream view of autism is no longer encapsulated in this one character with savant-like abilities. The general public is beginning to realize that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to autistic people.


We all remember that Raymond (the main protagonist in “Rain Man”) could count hundreds of objects, say, a box of matches scattered all over the floor, upon a single glance. But did you also remember how passionate he was about watching Judge Wapner on TV every day? Here’s an amusing 2-minute refresher for you:

Owen Suskind, the star of “Life, Animated”, on the other hand, *loves* Disney animated movies. In the film, we learn that Owen uses specific language, scenes, and exaggerated facial expressions from the likes of “The Little Mermaid,” “Lion King,” and “Aladdin” to connect with other people, understand his own feelings, and help him interpret reality. The film includes home footage from their childhood when Owen and his younger brother danced together like Mowgli and Baloo from “The Jungle Book:”

In another scene, Owen processes graduating from school and moving away from his parents into his own apartment by divulging that, like Peter Pan, part of him doesn’t want to grow up. One of the most poignant scenes for me involved the retelling of Owen’s imagined world where he, along with many of his Disney sidekick-friends, heroically stands up to adversity.

Owen and Raymond, like so many others on the spectrum, have special affinities. Affinities offer opportunities to get to understand and communicate with an autistic person on a level unlike any other. One of my kiddos was *much* more willing to take conversational turns with his peers, a typically-dreaded activity, when trading and talking about Muni cards (Muni is San Francisco’s public bus system. Think “baseball cards,” but with big honking buses…). Another of my kiddos made excellent progress asking wh- questions to request Disney princess stickers and create Disney-worthy stories filled with fiery dragons, magic lamps, and oh-so-handsome princes. Working with their affinities worked because these activities and themes are intrinsically motivating — that person engages in the activity because they find it naturally stimulating and enjoyable. And hey, if I can learn the intricacies concerning how a Muni bus gets commissioned and its engines get maintained along the way, then why not?! 🙂

As Owen’s mother, Carol Suskind, likes to say: “Respect their affinity, you respect them. Their chosen affinity is often at the core of their identity.” 


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