What Ron Suskind learned from his autistic son about using experiences to shape our story

“The amazing part of this whole journey is what we all learned,” says author Ron Suskind reflecting on his family’s long journey that started in 1993 after his youngest son, Owen, was diagnosed with autism. The quote applies equally well, though, to anyone who reads Suskind’s book about the experience.

Suskind is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of five books of creative non-fiction dealing with topics ranging from race and class in America, to the Bush administration, the war on terror, and the American economy. In his latest book, Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism (Kingswell), he turns his journalist’s eye on his own family, detailing the turbulent years after Owen was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. The book poignantly captures the family’s experiences and what they learned about Owen and themselves. We sat down recently to discuss with Suskind the reception to the book and its strong emotional appeal to readers outside of “autism nation,” who have found value in Owen’s journey.

BOOKTRIB: In Life, Animated you describe Owen and other autistic people as “exactly like the rest of us, only more so and less so.” How do you think this message has impacted readers of the book?

RON SUSKIND: The book has been embraced by folks who are in this particular community, but also widely and robustly by people who are not. Autism nation is a giant community. There are 3 to 3.5 million people on the autism spectrum in the United States. When you add in their family and friends you’re talking about 10-20 million people. But many of the folks who are responding [to the book] are saying, “I don’t know anyone in that community, but there’s a kid at the grocery story who I used to look right through, as though he wasn’t even there. And now I can’t. Recently, I engaged him, and he looked right back at me. And now, things are different.” I think that’s a little step of forward motion.

That’s really what’s happening in the book. It’s not about autism. It is, and it’s not. It’s about all of the larger issues of how we make our way in the world. Owen is just a very dramatic and extremely vivid representation of many of these essential principles of parenting and of how we make sense of ourselves, of how we construct our lives, often through stories and the stories we embrace.

BT: You write in the book about sentimentality, or as journalists call it schmaltz. J.D. Salinger defines this as giving your characters “more love than God gives them.” You go one step further to say that in non-fiction, schmaltz is “giving [your characters] more love than society gives them because maybe to do so upends the order of things.” How does this idea of schmaltz relate to the larger purpose of this book?

RS: I think Salinger’s right. But I also think it is a failure of society not to accord some people their due, [or to define people] as “us” and “them.” I think that is one of the great struggles of society that we’ve all been a part of as either actors or witness. Certainly throughout the 20th century there have been many examples of this, such as the Civil Rights movement, and now people defined according to sexual orientation and many other struggles. We can see in this time a kind of robustness in the many shapes and expressions of story, where many people who were once in the easily judged and excluded classes of society are saying, “Here’s who I am. Love me for who I am. Here is my story.”

As we learned to express and receive love with Owen and from Owen, I think the idea deep beneath the surface of this narrative is in essence to allow people like Owen to receive their due. I think that the issue of the many, many people who are differently able are excluded from the table of opportunity and of possibility is nothing short of a civil right’s issue for this time period.

BT: How do you think the book illustrates the difference between pity and empathy for those with autism or other challenges?

RS: Those two words are cousins of one another. Pity, though, allows for the entry of the idea of “us” and “them” that empathy does not. You might say, “I pity that person who is not like me. I pity their lot in life and it makes me thankful that I’m not like them.” That’s often pity. Empathy allows you to say, “I am finding a way to feel what they feel.”

Life Animated book coverBT: What has Owen—and the experience of writing about him—taught you?

RS: [My older son] Walter has one of the best lines in the book, as many people have mentioned: “We would not be who we are if Owen was not the way he is.” Obviously we wouldn’t wish what happened to him upon him. If we had to choose, I suppose. But you make life with what’s in front of you and this is the life we live, all of us. But Walt points out that Owen does more in a day than we do in a month with what he faces and with the way he has literally rewired his brain using the power of his imagination. That’s what Owen did. But the rest of us did that, too!

We had a much simpler view of the world, a more comforting one. It was comforting until all of sudden we had a kid in the basement [watching Disney movies]. And then we weren’t so comfortable anymore. But that discomfort was the seedbed of growth for all of us. Now we know otherwise. We know that the brain is constantly reshaping itself, constantly finding a way. Neuroplasticity is the official term, but it means that we are ever in a kind of search in the way we live our lives. The thing that shapes us, more than anything else, is the way we turn our experiences into story.

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