Last week, I finally got to see the film Life Animated which is about a young man with autism who found a way to connect with the world through Disney movies. I've always wanted to see this film after hearing from a friend who told me how good the movie was. To give you a brief synopsis the film centers around Owen Suskind who was diagnosed with autism at age three. His parents noticed that around age three he started to lose speech and was withdrawing in his own world. Once his parents received Owen's diagnosis, they tried all they can to connect with him and to get him to speak. Unfortunately progress was slow at first until they realized one day when they were watching a Disney movie with him that he was using these films to connect with the world. They realized this gradually through scripts and insights he provides such as explaining that his brother doesn't want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan. The film chronicles Owens life as he comes of age and transitions out of school age services into adulthood and independent living as well as how he utilizes the power of Disney to navigate and deal with this transition. The film interweaves animation into the film that chronicles pivotal moments of the film.
I personally loved Life Animated and found it relatable as someone on the autism spectrum. I loved how the synopsis of the film mainly centers around Owen and how he views the world. Too often most movies and television shows are filmed from the perspective of parents and professionals giving an "outside looking in" perspective on autism. Often these type of third person films portray autism in a negative light and how often the child is a burden on the family. Although Owen's parents and brother were interviewed and talked about how they "lost Owen" in the beginning, the film mainly puts Owen's perspective and insights in how he sees the world over those of his parents and brother as well as others who work with him.
The second thing I liked about the film is the positive message of embracing Owen's interest in Disney and how he uses it in a empowering way instead of faulting him for not having interests that are considered age appropriate according to the norms of typical society. For Owen, his interest in Disney allowed him to not only connect with his parents but allowed him to start a Disney club at school in which he has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills and ultimately leads him to have a girlfriend. As someone who is a big fan of Disney and other animated cartoon characters, I can relate to Owen in some degree even though his interest in Disney films is more all- encompassing and intense. An example in which the film resonates with my experience is when Owen was getting ready to move into his own place. He was starting to feel anxious and asked his dad if he can watch scenes from Dumbo to help calm himself down. Like Owen, I have utilize my love of childlike cartoon characters like Hello Kitty and Frozen to help me deal with my transition to a four year college as well as my current transition into the world of employment and the demands of the adult world. This is the part I wish more autism experts understood in how unusual and childlike interests like Disney serve a purpose of comfort and predictability in people like me and Owen. Too often, most autism interventions aim at eliminating these interests rather than embracing them. Life Animated does a good job showing how the power of special interests can be channeled in a way that allows individuals with autism to connect to the world and how it can be utilized in therapeutic interventions.
Another way I can relate to Owen in Life Animated is his anxiety about growing up. I liked how the film portrays Owen when he comes of age and demonstrates from a first person perspective of what it's like to transition to adulthood. My transitions from high school to community college, from community college to a four year University and now onto employment brings a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future. To see Owen going through a similar thing makes me feel like I am not the only one in my feelings. There are not a lot of realistic first person portrayals about transitioning from the comfort and structured nature of school services to the unstructured nature of adulthood. As someone living with autism, I felt that Life Animated accurately portrayed this rite of passage and gave me the validation that I longed for.
Overall on a scale on 1 to 10, I would rate this documentary a high 10. It is a neurodiverse friendly film which has the rare occurence of telling a story utilizing an "inside looking out" perspective that embraces the autistic way of thinking. Whether if you have experience dealing with autism or not, I would recommend everyone to see this film as some of the film's central message would resonate with everyone about growing up.
Here is the link to the trailer of Life Animated