Suskind Autism Case / Part 2 Creating Identity

Continued: the film and New York Times Magazine Article by Ron Suskind:

Comments follow this excerpt:

Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney, by Ron Suskind

We ask our growing team of developmental specialists, doctors and therapists about it. We were never big fans of plopping our kids in front of Disney videos, but now the question seemed more urgent: Is this good for him? They shrug. Is he relaxed? Yes. Does it seem joyful? Definitely. Keep it limited, they say. But if it does all that for him, there’s no reason to stop it.

So we join him upstairs, all of us, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in November 1994. Owen is already on the bed, oblivious to our arrival, murmuring gibberish. . . . “Juicervose, juicervose.” It is something we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks. Cornelia thinks maybe he wants more juice; but no, he refuses the sippy cup. “The Little Mermaid” is playing as we settle in, propping up pillows. We’ve all seen it at least a dozen times, but it’s at one of the best parts: where Ursula the sea witch, an acerbic diva, sings her song of villainy, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” to the selfish mermaid, Ariel, setting up the part in which Ursula will turn Ariel into a human, allowing her to seek out the handsome prince, in exchange for her voice.

When the song is over, Owen lifts the remote. Hits rewind.

“Come on, Owen, just let it play!” Walt moans. But Owen goes back just 20 seconds or so, to the song’s next-to-last stanza, with Ursula shouting:

Go ahead — make your choice! I’m a very busy woman, and I haven’t got all day. It won’t cost much, just your voice!

He does it again. Stop. Rewind. Play. And one more time. On the fourth pass, Cornelia (mother) whispers, “It’s not ‘juice.’ ” I barely hear her. “What?” “It’s not ‘juice.’ It’s ‘just’ . . . ‘just your voice’!”

He looks right at me, our first real eye contact in a year. “Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!”

Walt starts to shout, “Owen’s talking again!” A mermaid lost her voice in a moment of transformation. So did this silent boy.Juicervose! Juicervose! Juicervose!” Owen keeps saying it, watching us shout and cheer. And then we’re up, all of us, bouncing on the bed. Owen, too, singing it over and over — “Juicervose!” — as Cornelia, tears beginning to fall, whispers softly, “Thank God, he’s in there.”

We told his various therapists about what happened. Cornelia and I could think of little else. Owen reached out, if only for a moment, from his shut-in world. We spoke to our child.

The speech therapist tamped down our enthusiasm. Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, our trusted developmental pediatrician, did, too. He explained that echolalia is a common feature in kids like Owen. (Actually, it’s common in pop-culture) It’s something babies sometimes do between 6 and 9 months, repeating consonants and vowels as they learn to turn babble into words. It’s also something seen in people with developmental disabilities who can’t speak. Just like what the term suggests, they echo, usually the last word or two of a sentence.

(Echolalia is apparently a useful step in acquiring “physical language ability” in preparation for the full use of language to communicate meaning. It would not therefore be a sign of “disability” in itself.)

“You’re a very smart and pretty girl,” a mother might say to her daughter. “Pretty girl,” the child will respond, an echo. Do those kids know what the words mean, we pressed Rosenblatt. “Usually not,” he said. “They may want to make a connection, which is hopeful,” he added.

“They just repeat the last sound,” I croaked. He nodded. Why, I persisted, in a last stab, would he be rewinding that one part for weeks, maybe longer, and choose that phrase from so many in an 83-minute movie? Rosenblatt shrugged. No way of knowing.

Three weeks after the “juicervose” dance, we are at Walt Disney World. Walt grabs Owen’s hand, and off they go down Main Street, U.S.A. There are attractions in Fantasyland — the Mad Tea Party, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — that echo movies they both love. The boys sit in the flying galleon on Peter Pan’s Flight as it swirls and dips over landscapes and figures from Never Land, the Lost Boys frolicking in their lair, Wendy walking the plank, Peter Pan crossing swords with Captain Hook. They look like any other pair of brothers, and in the trick of this light, they are.

Each time Cornelia and I feel that, we catch ourselves. After the “juicervose” euphoria and then the cold water poured on us by doctors, we try to make sure we aren’t just seeing what we want to see.

But by midafternoon, it’s clear that Owen isn’t self-talking in the streams of gibberish or flapping his hands as he usually does. Some, but not much. He seems calm and focused — following the group, making eye contact — and oddly settled, with a slight smile, eyes alight, just as he is while watching the movies on our bed. Owen seems at home here (Disneyland), as though his identity, or however much of it has formed, is somehow tied to this place.


Some explanatory statements behind my thinking on Autism and the “mythical” status of consciousness, from my post “Co-consciousness / Words”

“In Western cultures, verbal language is inseparable from the process of creating a conscious human being: use of words as the vehicle of thought is conscious thinking. Visual thinking is unconscious thought.”

“A child is told who it is, where it belongs, and how to behave, day in and day out, from birth throughout childhood (and life.) In this way culturally-approved patterns of thought and behavior are imparted, organized and strengthened in the child’s brain. Setting tasks that require following directions, and asking children to ‘correctly’ answer questions along the way, helps parents and society to discover if the preferred responses are in place.”

“Even with basic information in place, and hoped-for responses forthcoming, children can be frustrating for adults to deal with, because young children are not fully able to interpret language and may be slow to respond, to which adults often react negatively and with anger. (Or despair, confusion, self-recrimination, I would add. For a social typical person, this interruption of expectations for their child’s development is an unimaginable disaster – the reaction that “the child has disappeared” follows logically from the belief that “the child” is its conformity to the “developmental social plan” – a plan that is suitable to the parent’s cultural environment and social class.) Adults are impatient for a child to use language as an adult would – that is, to be conscious. To the (dominant white American) adult, a child’s immediate attention via eye contact confirms a successful connection.”

We could use the phrase ‘a brain accessible to others’ to characterize a (neurotypically-defined) conscious state. Failure of a child to ‘pay attention’ drives adults crazy, whether it’s attributed to ‘willful disobedience’ or the child is judged to be developmentally AWOL.

The human need for reciprocity is the tip of the iceberg. Our need for connection to others results in the projection of consciousness onto every object in the universe, from rocks, trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, springs, planets, stars and the moon, to the universe itself. Like perpetual children, we wait expectantly for advanced (adult) beings from distant galaxies to contact us. We see signs and miracles in the least coincidences. Humans are capable of relationships with automobiles, slot machines, animated characters, stuffed animals and body parts.

To the adult, a child’s immediate attention via eye contact confirms a successful connection.



How appropriate! Disney buys the Star Wars franchise, another prime producer of American “echolalia” culture.


My frustration is that the focus is on a “lost child kidnapped by autism” who is rescued, restored, returned to “normal development” – sort of. The first sentence of the article, “In our first year in Washington, our son disappeared,” is extremely important.

The default assumption as to “the meaning” (narrative) behind the child having stopped using verbal language to communicate is “motivation”. Stopping language = rejection of being an acceptable social human being. As the story of Owen evolves in the film, this is not true at all: Owen is social: friendly, outgoing, talkative, ambitious and motivated to succeed. SOMETHING interfered in his verbal learning behavior, but it would seem to be a specific physical obstacle; “he” did not “disappear” but spent a very long time in the stage of “echoing” verbal and visual information provided by Disney animated and musical films, which in effect, composed his identity.

Disney’s highly visual, simplified and exaggerated presentation of stories, amplified by a running verbal-musical narrative, which he cleverly developed for childhood  entertainment, ALSO supplies “socially accepted and promoted” lessons; Prince Charming to the recue of a beautiful but incomplete Princess; the “outsider” who is rejected, but overcomes “disability” and prejudice to become a “Hero” – and therefore a social success… Importantly, the “fate” of evil people (antisocials) is clear: total destruction. Therefore, Disney movies stand as a proxy education for the content that society delivers to its children, but in a much less “complex” realistic version accessible to and understandable by “young brains”.  

Movies and entertainment spinoffs provide a pop-culture archive for America’s “echolalia generations” – “infantile” (neotenic) adults who repeat catch phrases, act out costume episodes, and adopt the “conversation styles” of favorite characters from film fantasy; content which literally forms their identities. Is this Autism?

The important question that must be asked in each individual case of “suspected developmental disability” is, What is the ACTUAL CAUSE of the “interruption” in “expected development”? If the answer is “A mysterious disturbance in the social order aka in THE FORCE” then the child may simply be developing along it’s own trajectory; patience and encouragement of the child’s “native way of being in the world” is required, NOT A DIAGNOSIS OF PATHOLOGY.

So far in the article, we have a beautiful narrative crafted by Ron Suskind; narratives are what neurotypical people build from “thoughts, feelings and ideas” – this is a basic way of communicating and adding “meaning and explanation” especially to “mysterious occurences and events”. Just about everything is characterized by neurotypicals as “mysterious”. LOL In the case of Autism, the “causes” may not be mysterious, but are made so by confusion – a lack of analysis rather than dependence on ritual social narratives.



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