tv 2020 ABC November 25, 2016 9:01pm-10:00pm MST
tonight, on a "20/20" thanksgiving -- ? under the sea ? >> the familiar voices a little boy loved, until he lost his voice. his connection to the >> doesn't make sense. kids don't grow backwards. >> you feel like you've lost your child. >> then, found his voice again. with the help of disney characters we all know and love. ? all the bare necessities ? >> using their voices to speak for him. >> he's using these movies to interpret our world. >> the astounding story of
to their son. >> how does it feel to be you? >> and that son who grew up. >> yes! gilbert gottfried! >> and found a way to talk to the world. >> what was mufasa teaching simba? >> now spreading his message on the radio, and in that your life can be animated. no matter how it starts. >> you're the greatest. >> i am the greatest. >> you are the greatest. >> finding owen, a boy's story. >> hello everyone, i'm david muir. and happy thanksgiving. >> i'm elizabeth vargas. while so many of you are still gathered with your families right now, the story of one
company, spoke to their little boy, and helped him to speak, literally. >> owen's story is told in the award-winning film, "life animated." here tonight, debra roberts. >> daddy and owen. fighting with swords in the leaves. >> reporter: a dad and son playing make-believe in a massachusetts suburb. >> it's a video like every family has a zillion of at this point. leafy backyard. it's autumn. we're running in the crunching leaves. >> reporter: a treasured moment in time, a backyard recreation that appears unremarkable. >> thank you. thank you. >> we're doing a sword fight.
owen, who are you? >> i'm peter pan, and you're captain hook. >> okay. oh, no! and it was really a glimpse of a life that would soon change and vanish. >> reporter: ron and cornelia suskind are journalists raising two boys, 5-year-old walt and his younger brother owen. >> say night-night. >> night-night. >> in the early days, we lived on -- what we now look back and call the continent normal. >> it was just perfect. walter, incredibly spirited child from the start, and then owen, this beautiful, curly boy, you know -- just two really great kids. owen was easy as pie. just gentle, happy. he was interacting, speaking completely normally. you know, "this is my crib.
>> i still can't watch it. >> you still can't watch it. >> he had a few hundred words, usual 2 1/2-year-old vocabulary. he could say what he wanted, "i love you. let's get ice cream. where are my ninja turtles?" >> reporter: then, three months after the backyard sword fight, a sudden and seismic shift. owen's words begin disappearing at an alarming rate. >> cornelia says, "something isn't right with owen." she says, "he's not talking." and i'm noticing it, too. at you. >> and i actually thought that he was having a hearing issue, because you'd say, "owen," and he wouldn't turn and look at you. >> reporter: in their home movies, you see he's disconnected. >> his motor skills seem to have gone haywire. you know, he's walking around like someone with their eyes closed. it doesn't make sense. kids don't grow backwards. >> reporter: worried, they take owen to a specialist, a scene now seared in their memory,
illustrations in the film "life animated." >> she has us stand in a long hallway. i need to let him walk from me to cornelia. i remember kneeling down next to owen and saying, "hey, buddy." i said, "just walk like you used to walk." and then i let go of him. and, you know, he just weaves down the hall. >> i remember literally holding him in a bear hug and thinking, "i'm just going to hold you so tight and love you so much that whatever is going on will go away." >> and then the doctor sits us down, and she says, "let me explain this to you. this is called autism." >> we didn't hear anything she said after she said that word. >> it's 1994. we know what everyone knows at that point.
>> it's 1987 -- >> "you're telling me my son is like dustin hoffman in that movie? that can't be." and her response is, "maybe, maybe not. many of them never get their speech back. >> we just couldn't possibly comprehend that this could be owen, and this could be his future. >> we're looking at that video like we're looking for clues to a kidnapping. where did he go? >> reporter: walt, three years older thanwe the change in his brother. >> all of a sudden, my pretty conventional 2 1/2-year-old brother who i'd play around with kind of just disappeared. it was scary. >> you feel like you've lost your child. when you can't get them to smile when you say something, or to respond when you say, "i love you," that doesn't leave you with a lot. >> it's hard to live without hope.
>> reporter: for the next year, intensive speech and language therapy becomes owen's full-time world, but he remains silent. >> those few hundred words were down to a single word, "juice." one word. now cornelia thinks he wants more juice, because he's saying, "juicervos," over the last couple of months. right? juicervos, juicervos. she says, "oh, he wants more juice." doesn't want the juice. r enjoyed disney movies like "the lion king," but now, they are his only comfort. >> he would calm down during the movies. so that was our refuge. that was really the only time we would be together. ? i want to be where the people are ? >> reporter: then one day, during a family viewing of "the little mermaid," a movie they watch over and over again, a
owen's repetition of the word juice suddenly makes sense. >> it's the moment where ariel realizes she needs to become human. >> can you do that? >> and she makes her deal with ursula, the sea witch. the key moment of the movie. and ursula says, "it won't cost you much. just your voice." and owen rewinds. third rewind, fourth rewind. >> just your voice! >> cornelia says, "it's no i said, "what?" she says, "it's not juice. it's just." >> i thought, "oh, my god, that's what he's saying." oh, he's saying, "just your voice." >> i'm like, "oh, my god." i grab owen. "just your voice." and he says, "juicervos. juicervos." and it's the first time he looks at me in a year. and walt starts jumping in the bed, "owen's talking again." and cornelia begins to cry. saying, "he's still in there." >> reporter: ron is convinced his vanished boy is re-emerging.
day, and he's like, "and you're probably not going to like this. have a seat. we call this echolalia." "is that what i think it means?" he's like, "kind of. echo." and i'm like, "you mean like a parrot." he's like, "kind of." >> reporter: and the doctor seems prophetic. over the next three years, owen barely speaks. but then he defies the medical predictions. it is wa and owen is 6. >> we were cleaning up, and walt was hanging out in the backyard, and kind of down in the dumps. >> and owen follows us into the kitchen. and he says, "walter doesn't want to grow up like mowgli or peter pan." and then off he runs. it was like a thunderbolt went through the kitchen. cornelia's like, "well, what is that? what just happened?" >> what did he just say?
something about walter and he is able to verbalize that to us? it was enormous. you know, it was a -- it was a complete changing of the telescope, really. >> he's using these movies to interpret our world, the bigger world. so at that point, we just are giddy. and cornelia, after several hours of this conversation, in the kitchen just says, "find a way back in. find a way." >> reporter: next -- >> i grab the puppet. and i say to him in gilbert gottfried's voice, "owen, owen, how does it feel to be you?" >> reporter: finding owen. how does a puppet show crack the code? >> it's our first conversation
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"20/20" continues with finding owen. once again, debra roberts. >> reporter: owen suskind's brother walt is celebrating his 9th birthday, and it has brought the best gift the family could imagine. 6-year-old owen, trapped in silence by his autism, finally speaks. >> that was really a huge moment of revelation. >> reporter: owen compares his brother walt to peter pan, a sudden glimpse into the mystery of his mind. >> i have to grow up tomorrow. >> grow up? >> reporter: could disney movies be the codebreaker, the key to communication with owen?
>> i go up to the bedroom. and then i see on the floor, next to the bed, is a puppet. it's iago, the evil sidekick to the villain, jafar, in "aladdin." >> jafar? jafar? >> so i crawl across the rug as quietly as i can. i don't want him to look at me. and i throw the bedspread over my head, i grab the puppet. i push the puppet up through the bedspread. and i say to him in gilbert gottfried's voice, "owen, owen, how does it feel to be you?" and owen turns to the puppet like he's bumping into an old friend. and he goes, "not good. i'm lonely and i have no friends." and then we talk. it's iago and owen. it's our first conversation since he's 2 years old. it's like mozart. i throw over the bedspread. i'm like, "we're speaking in disney dialogue." i hug owen. i run down. i hug cornelia.
discovery launches an experiment, what ron calls the basement sessions. every night, the family gathers to watch and reenact disney scenes like in "the jungle book." ? wherever a i wander, wherever i roam ? >> cornelia and i basically get phds in disney. >> we were jumping into his language and his world, going in to where he was rather than trying to bring him out to where we were. ron, now a pulitzer prize-winning "wall street journal" reporter, begins living what he calls a double life. interviewing presidents by day, imitating cartoon characters by night. they soon discover owen has memorized dozens of disney movies. and not only knows the lines, he's using the films to teach himself about life. >> he started to use the movies as a kind of mirror to understand his life. "hercules" for not giving up.
safe from any harm. >> "jungle book" for making friends. "pinocchio" for what it feels like to be a real boy. >> you are a real boy! >> reporter: owen is at a school for children with learning disabilities. his language skills are improving. >> what is it, "o"? >> reporter: and soon, his art skills, too. by age 11, 5 years after uttering that first sentence at walt's party, owen's spending hours immersed in animation in a new way -- drawing. when ron stumbles upon his sketchpad, he begins to understand owen's view of himself. >> as you flip through the pages, i see there's 100 sidekicks. no heroes. the last two pages, he writes two things. "i am the protector of the sidekicks." and on the last page, he writes, "no sidekick gets left behind." >> reporter: and for every
for owen, it's his brother walt. student body president, on the football team, and popular. >> like any big brother, you want to be his protector, you want to be his role model. >> reporter: walt's rites of passage become a roadmap for owen. when walt celebrates his bar mitzvah, owen takes notice. >> and as the age approached, owen said, "when is my bar mitzvah?" i never thought, "okay, walter's having a bar mitzvah. owen will have a bar mitzvah." why would i put him through all of this? we had enough trouble just getting through day to day. >> reporter: it would be a life-changing event. the years of therapy, disney movies and otherwise, have paid off. owen wrote the sermon himself. >> sometimes, people are scared of people who are not like them. they can be mean and ignore them sometimes. we should never take advantage
mitzvah day was the proudest day of his life. >> god gave me strength, courage and a big heart. >> he was bursting. just blew everybody away. >> look at all the faces beaming with you. >> let's hear it for the star of the show! [ cheers and applause ] >> reporter: the message of acceptance that owen has shared with his temple, he wants to share with the world. >> he said to us, "i r people to know what people like me with autism are, that we're just like them." he of course said, you know, "i'm a diamond in the rough, an unpolished gem," from "aladdin." >> reporter: by now, ron has written five bestselling books about education, politics, the economy, but now he decides to share the story of owen in a book he calls "life animated."
filmmaker roger ross williams takes notice. >> i really wanted to tell the story of the outsiders. and i really wanted to tell the story of people like owen who people look past. >> reporter: next, meet grown-up owen today. >> my name is owen suskind. >> reporter: living it up with his disney heroes. and finding love. stay with us. this artoo unit must be delivered to the rebellion. come on artoo! ? artoo! welcome to the rebellion. ? this is for you. duracell and children's miracle network hospitals are powering imaginations everywhere.
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congrats! i hear you're having a baby. here we go. just breathe. here we go. you better start saving for college tuition. and you'll probably need a bigger house at some point. but new york life can help you manage your family's financial future. so you can relax, and enjoy life's special moments. like this moment. (guttural yelling) that's what being good at life is all about, right? (vo) be good at life.
owen was about to go through this really transformative year of his life. he was about to graduate from school, he had fallen l and he was about to become independent. so i was going to follow owen and hit these moments in his life that are universal. >> reporter: universal moment number one. boy meets girl. owen finds love at his school for special needs, surprising his family. >> seeing owen in what he calls a love relationship was the
life. >> these are for you. >> oh, thank you, owen. >> they are very attentive to each other for a good long time in their relationship. and it's a time of joy. >> i also have this necklace for you, too. >> thanks emily. >> it's beautiful. it's romance. i mean, you know -- you know, owen is getting advice from walter, a lot of advice from walter at this point. >> even basic things like when you're having this conversation, make sure to ask her, like, what she's interested in, or, you know, this might be a good present, or here's a good date idea. >> it's pretty serious. >> it is pretty serious. >> you've had a class on this at
things? >> sometimes i have. how does that make you feel? >> it makes me feel a little nervous and a little excited. emily is wonderful. and speaks soft and gentle. >> reporter: seems owen's future all mapped out. >> when i move into my apartment emily will move into the apartment above me and we'll be neighbors in love. >> reporter: the man capturing these moments -- director roger ross williams -- wants his film to be honest portrayal of owen. but behind the scenes he's forced to be honest with himself. >> i didn't know anything about autism. to be honest, i was uncomfortable in the beginning around owen. i didn't know how to behave. i was like everyone else in the world. >> reporter: but over time, some things come into focus for the filmmaker. >> that was the first stereotype that sort of got broken down for me because i was like, huh. people with autism actually fall
>> reporter: owen met his first love at "disney club." a group he created for classmates who share a love of disney, to discuss their feelings. >> what was mufasa teaching simba? >> reporter: the club even has an occasional star drop by like jonathan freeman, the voice of jafar in disney's aladdin. >> your father's charged me with keeping peace in agrabah. the boy was a criminal. >> reporter: jonathan and owen take center stage to run a few lines together. but the two are quickly upstaged by another very familiar voice. >> the idea has merit. >> yes, merit. >> gilbert gottfried! >> reporter: the surprise guest gilbert gottfried brings the
we're never going to get a hold out of that stupid lamp. [ laughter ] >> reporter: it is graduation day on the cape and owen suskind has a cheering section worthy of the red sox. >> every single member of our family came to that graduation. it was an extraordinary day. it really was. >> and there he was with this mortar board on. and holding up his arms saying, "i made it." i'm so proud of you. you're the greatest. >> i am the greatest. >> you are the greatest. and that was i think maybe the most beautiful part of that day, the pride he felt. look at me.
>> here we, owen. >> yes, here we are. >> reporter: months later, another "first," when owen moves into his own apartment. taking up residence here in a supported community but living on his own in a condo. and just as he imagined, his dream girl is living right upstairs. >> in a million years i would never have imagined that owen would be where he is today. never. good-bye, mom. >> and all of a sudden it's the moment of letting go. and then we say, "see you. i love you. have a good night. call us tomorrow." >> and we left. and cornelia and i sat in the car and said, "oh, wow." that moment of release. and exhilaration and terror at -- all at the same time.
rolling. like most nights, owen picks a movie to watch. on the first night of his independence, he chooses "bambi." >> hunters are in the forest chasing bambi and his mother. and his mother gets shot. >> i didn't see that until i was sitting in an audience at sundance at the premiere. so there 800 people around me, and i'm seeing the -- owen's first night on his own, and the movie that he chose, and i -- it just blew my mind. >> i think he chose bambi because he was losing his mother. that really tore my heart out. >> reporter: 28-year old walt
about becoming the future caretaker of his younger brother. >> it will be just be me and i'll be ready. i've been getting ready my whole life. but it can be overwhelming to think about. it can keep you up at night. >> those were feelings that walter never shared with us, never. that has been his life. it's very hard for us to hear, but it's true. >> it's a little different i feel like, for me as a brother, because in some ways, i feel like a brother. and in some ways i feel like his parent. >> reporter: what role will the big brother play next when the phone rings and the news is not good? >> emily broke up with owen.
>> reporter: owen's brother walter is being filmed for the documentary when the phone rings. >> i just got a call. emily broke with owen. there was a meeting with all the case workers today, so basically, the case workers told owen that it was over with emily in the room. it sounds bad. >> having him find someone to have a relationship with was the most joyous thing and having him lose that was the hardest thing. >> reporter: the cause for the breakup? same as so many others. >> emily gave these reasons, five points about owen being too close and needing space and everything else. >> hi, emily. emily?
at least i waved to her. [ phone ringing ] >> hi, honey! >> mom? >> yes, sweetie? >> why is life so full of unfair pain and tragedy? >> owen, it's just the way life is. that's the way life has always been and will always be. we have incredibly joyous times, and relaxing times, but we also have sad times and painful times. >> but it's not fair. >> i know, honey. so much things that happen in life aren't fair, so many things. >> reporter: the young man who ran the disney club is now a member of a much bigger club.
>> and they were living on top of each other too, mind you, which was complicated. emily was living above owen. >> he could hear her walking back and forth and he would just be looking at the ceiling. and every single time someone would come down the hall and open the front door, he'd run to the door, and open it, and go, "emily!" it was painful to see him in so much pain. as a filmmaker, i was -- i didn't know what to do. i didn't whether to keep going or whether to stop filming. tears with him because he would go to his bedroom and he would watch the saddest scenes he could summon up from disney films. and he would watch them over and over again, and that's how he processed it, that's how he dealt with his pain. >> what's the saying? boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back in the end?
>> but i -- i -- i -- i -- this is driving me crazy. >> yeah. >> why did this have to happen to make my life sad forever? >> reporter: in the film, we watch owen try to make sense of the breakup by putting pencil to paper. >> i created fuzzbutch, who is a villain in the land of lost sidekicks. fuzzbutch's evil powers is to blow fog into people's head, to make the world look like a weird place to them and make them look sad. >> reporter: once again, illustrations and animations help owen to navigate his way thru a rough reality. and today, the documentary team is following him as he's about to meet some of the legends whose famous characters opened up his world. eric goldberg, lead animator for "genie" in "aladdin," guides the way. down this hallowed hall are some
>> owen knows everything they've ever done, every character they worked on. >> reporter: though owen sees himself as a sidekick, he gets a hero's welcome from the team. >> the disney animators are just giddy. they're like, "owen knows our work better than we do." >> he's an artist, as good as many. he can sit down and draw most of the characters better than i can. >> and that's what they love about him. like, look what he's doing there. that's a little more vivid. and so that's -- that's owen's life. and we hope, and he hopes, that someday that'll be a part of what he does. >> reporter: but until that day comes, owen suskind is on the clock just like the rest of us. [ alarm clock rings ] >> just going to shower and brush my teeth, okay? my lunch is all set and ready to go.
>> reporter: he holds down two part-time jobs, one at a movie theater and another at a toys r us. and once a week, he's a deejay at a community college radio station. >> my name is dj animator, and you're listening to the disney show. >> reporter: dj animator, playing music in the key of dreams. >> now here's "soon you'll come home to my heart" from "all dogs go to heaven" on 90.7. >> this here is my kitchen. >> reporter: with some supervision, he makes his own meals. calories he can then burn off at the local "y." >> it's cold. >> reporter: with a challenging routine of laps. >> i'm just going to take a breath, okay? >> reporter: there, owen has a comforting group of friends reassuring owen about something that's been bothering him since his break up, his prospects for
bachelor. >> no matter what, there will be someone out there for me. >> there will definitely be someone out there for you. there's no question. >> she can come visit me. that i don't see every day, just some days and some weekends. i'm being filmed. so they will know i'm available. >> reporter: next, hitting the red carpet. >> owen is running down the aisle high-fiving people. as he takes the stage, people are in tears, they're screaming out his name. >> reporter: the celebrity of owen, when we return. full blownn to the basement, you're gonna be out of work without that money from... aflac! you might miss your rent. aww i just moved out. bummer man. hey i used to have my own place. yeah?
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premiered this year and is playing at festivals around the country and the world. the magic carpet of animated movies and the documentary are carrying owen farther into the world than his family ever dreamed. >> the way people see those with autism is that they don't want to be around other people. that's wrong. >> the owen effect is extraordinary. people are in tears, they're screaming out his name. he relishes his place in the spotlight. >> reporter: sometimes, he's front and center with notable friends from the animated world. his old pal, gilbert gottfried.
then you become the sultan? >> i become sultan? the idea has merit. >> he actually knows it better than i do. >> reporter: and paige o'hara, the voice of belle from "beauty and the beast," here at the virginia film festival. >> i just want to give you a hug. >> it's a pleasure to meet you. >> you are so wonderful. >> thanks. >> reporter: oscar winning composer of "little mermaid" and many other classics, alan menken, happy to simply accompany his friend on the keyboard. ? under the sea ? [ cheers and applause ] >> reporter: what do you want people to learn about you, owen, and your life, by watching the film? what do you hope other people will learn? >> will understand me. >> reporter: understand what?
>> how many people here like disney, show of hands. >> i love disney! >> reporter: at uva, owen and his dad meet with students studying autism, and a few nonverbal people with autism from the community. >> it's great to meet you. what's your name? >> i'm ron. >> reporter: using a letter board, a student joins owen's quest to not be forgotten. >> i'm inspired to know new friends and advocates. >> i'm glad to be your new friend, juan. >> we feel that no autistic should be left behind. let's hear it for that. >> that's something that everybody wants. and owen says that as so many of the spectrum kids i talk to and adults say it. i want to be out there. i want a life so much like the life you're living or the one you want. so that was always our challenge. >> reporter: it's become their mission, bringing awareness to people who are all too often overlooked. >> cornelia and i would say to
because i can't count the number of times when people would look at our son and say, that's not a meaningful life. who decides that? who decides the meaningful life is? he's asked that now. he says, "i do. and this life i live is meaningful. let me show you how." >> reporter: ron is now working to help other families. >> some of the parents are going, "how do i do what you did?" you know, i don't have a pulitzer prize, my wife works spend ten years in the basement watching disney. >> reporter: while there is no cure for autism, ron says their experience with owen suggests there may be a way to reach people with autism through their obsessions or affinities. >> then we saw there are many affinities. the kids who are harry potter kids and star wars kids, dinosaur kids. >> reporter: dinosaur kids. >> i have kids -- >> reporter: i know a boy who's obsessed with dinosaurs. >> they're everywhere. >> reporter: ron has created technology to explore ways that
children silenced by autism using movies as a launching pad to spark conversation. >> do you like to watch a funny video? >> yes, i do. >> do you get afraid of being alone? >> sometimes. >> why? >> because i have low self esteem and autism. >> reporter: autism researcher kirstin birtwell with harvard medical school and massachusetts general hospital, is now studying this theory that affinities can be therapy. >> if it works for families and families have an experience with it that is positive, who are we as professionals to really not want to look into that and not want to explore it. >> can you look at the "ratatouille" teaser trailer? >> there is no such thing as perfection. and autism is a way of being. it's not something to be fixed. it's just the idea of recognizing the joy in your child, and following that joy,
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>> we'll do it together, ready? 1, 2, 3. >> reporter: but also a flickering concern. >> you're both still young. >> we are so young. >> next year you're still young? >> so young. >> reporter: a reminder that with each passing year, owen's parents are growing older. >> do you want to do it yourself, didn't walter teach you how to do this? >> can you help me? >> reporter: a reality for which they constantly prepare him. >> okay. i'm not always going to be here to do your tie, you know. >> i know. >> we have talked to him about our life and how life unfolds. and we may not always be here for him. and we are going to help him prepare for a time when we're not. >> reporter: for owen, disney helps him decipher this lesson too. a favorite scene from "the lion king" offers comfort. >> a dad?
friends, right, dad?" and mufasa says, "yes." "simba, let me tell you what my father once told me. look at the stars. the great kings of the past look down upon us from those stars. so whenever you're alone just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you. and so will i." >> there will be a when we'll be gone. he will not only look at the stars, he will hear in his head the voices of all of the characters he's embraced. that has helped him live, they've helped him make his way in the world. and he will remember us. precisely, our voices, our
i like to know what's happening as soon as it happens. who won the game, who won on the dancing show... ...i mean, if i watched that show. same with my banking. with my bank of america mobile banking app, i can see my accounts all in one place. i can easily manage them and if something doesn't look right, i'm going to know. plus, i can set up alerts to help detect unusual activity. so i feel secure. wait, he won? that's an average tango... at best. an update to breaking news. screams from a valley movie theater over fears someone had a gun. >> this is in happy valley those concerns prompting that theater to be evacuated. police not taking chances. no gun was found. cops say there was a man acting erratically. they have that 44-year-old in custody right now. most importantly nobody was hurt.