By Adrian Martino
Imagine if your child had stopped talking and that the only way to communicate with him was through the Disney animated movies he liked so much.
That was the challenging, life-changing experience shared by the guest speaker at Cuesta College Cultural & Performing Arts Center – Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, New York Times best-selling author and political analyst Ron Suskind on March 19.
His book “Life, Animated – A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism,” chosen as the Cuesta College 2018 Book of the Year, is the real-life story of Owen Suskind, his youngest son, who stopped talking at the age of 3, after being diagnosed with autism, and the strength and perseverance of Suskind family to find a way each one of us can persevere and find animation in life.
Managing the colliding roles of being both the father and the author of a book about your loved ones, and still reporting the facts fairly and not being biased, was the challenge that Suskind faced, and he said it wasn’t easy.
“I try to step away, from the life we were living,” Suskind told The Cuestonian. “I almost think about it like I am an archangel, returning to earth, were I am able to subtly see things in the completeness, but not be involved necessarily as one of the characters because that would mess it up.”
Cuesta’s Book of the Year Program is celebrating its 10th year, and the March 19 presentation included a lecture, book signing and reception at the Cultural and Performing Arts Center on campus.
On the huge stage, Suskind walked from one side to another. The public followed each step of the author and the story that begins to be told. To entertain the crowd in the course of his presentation, Suskind blended some funny moments took place, imitating the accent of some former presidents to entertain the audience, with bits and pieces of Owen’s life and the challenges that the family faced together in the course of it. Owen’s first words were related to Disney movies.
As he grew up, became a teenager and an adult, he continued to use the lines and songs of animated films as a tool to form his identity and deal with his emotions among real-life heroes, sidekicks and bad guys. The lecture did not talked about a fairy tale book. Instead, as described in the book author’s note, “is the story of one family’s experience across 20 years, and what we discovered.”
Audience members who attended commented highlighted parts of the book that impacted them.
“In the book there was a time when Owen was threatened by another boy at the school and he could not talk with his parents for a year about it, but it impacted his behavior and even his Disney fascination,” said Karen O’Donnell, a Los Osos Middle School teacher and audience member.
According to Dedra Balke, pediatric neurologist, Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center Co-founder, board president and Cuesta College Book of The Year contributor, one of the effects of autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is that it makes communication and socialization difficult.
“Autism can have many forms,” Balke told The Cuestonian. “Every child with autism is unique, just like you or I.”
Balke explained that some of the challenges with autism here in the county are the same that the rest of the world faces: finding opportunities for individuals with autism to be successful and to be able to communicate successfully with others. Even with these challenges, there are successful stories.
“We have individuals that are working in full-time employment with competitive wages positions,” Balke said. “Things have really changed for the autism community when we started looking at ability rather than disability.”
Here in San Luis Obispo County, one of the programs offered by Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center is the Art on the Spectrum Workshop Series. It is a five-week art program exploring the artistic abilities of individuals on the autism spectrum.
“I feel like they immediately started to react, interacting and support with one another,” said Sydney Hall, artist, program concept creator and event member.
Another important factor for these individual’s success is the support and determination of those who are close to them in finding the best method of communication that suits the way how each one of them processes the information they receive.
“If you can find something to relate to their world, enter into their world a little bit and figure out the ways to communicate that way, your life just opens up and creates much more enriches experiences,” said Tyler Skinner, mother of an autistic child and event member.
In addition of his wife Cornelia Suskind and his son Walter Suskind participation, Suskind attributes the success of the book to Owen’s incredible memory. The Suskind family worked together to create the book.
“That is way the book carries the verisimilitude of life which is all you can hope for, in terms of what we try to do as writers of non-fiction,” Suskind said.