Breakthrough! Animated Disney characters helped an autistic boy communicate with his family--and eventually build a bridge to the world.

Author:Onderko, Patty

During the Night of Too Many Stars autism fundraiser in March 2015, a 24-year-old man dressed in gray slacks and a V-neck sweater hurried onstage, clearly excited to meet his idol--and not at all self-conscious about it.

Unlike the celebrities making their way to the microphone for this annual Comedy Central benefit, Owen Suskind did not play it cool. "Hi, Gilbert!" he said, laughing in disbelief as he shook hands with comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who voices one of Owen's favorite characters from the animated Disney movie Aladdin. Owen had seen the movie probably 100-plus times since age 3.

Under dozens of lights and cameras, Owen grinned broadly. "Oh, boy," he said, prompting cheers from the audience.

As Gottfried launched into character as Iago, the evil parrot sidekick to Aladdin's nemesis Jafar, Owen shook his head incredulously and palmed his forehead in a classic can't-believe-my-luck gesture before composing himself in preparation for his line. "Patience, Iago, patience," he intoned perfectly as Jafar. When Gottfried forgot his lines, Owen took over as both characters, and the crowd instantly stood.

Owen's father, Ron Suskind, watching from the wings of the theater, did not dare to imagine a moment like this more than 21 years earlier. That was when the precocious toddler suddenly changed. A home video shows Owen standing in his crib and asking his mom to play music from "Mr. Beethoven." But that once-talkative boy was replaced by one who did not return chatter, eye contact or hugs from his older brother, Walt; his mother, Cornelia; and Ron.

At that time, there were no televised fundraisers for autism hosted by Jon Stewart, and parenting magazines weren't loaded with articles about autism spectrum disorders. The Suskind family had only one reference for autism: Rain Man, the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman as a phonebook-memorizing, obsessive autistic savant who had spent his life in a mental institution until his long-lost brother, portrayed by Tom Cruise, rescued him. Would this be the Suskinds' life? Would their son come back? Would he ever talk?

Many months later, doctors described Owen as autistic. The diagnosis was refined years later to late-onset, or regressive, autism. And Owen's future remained unclear.

Being a parent is always tiring and scary, but parenting an autistic child can be exhausting and terrifying. Difficulty sleeping is a hallmark symptom of autism, and the Suskinds spent most nights trying to coax Owen back to bed, unsure whether their consoling was more comforting to him or themselves. Unable to express...

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