After Ron Suskind’s 2-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with autism, the Pulitzer-Prize winner and former Wall Street Journal reporter wanted to find a way to reach him. Owen loved Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” and was particularly drawn to the scene where Ariel trades her voice to the sea witch Ursula, in order to become human.
He repeated a version of the lines over and over again.
“The idea that he would pick those three words out of an 80-plus minute animated film and not supposedly understand what the words meant, seemed extraordinary to us,” Suskind said at a conference held April 1 in McGonigle Hall that addressed some of the new therapy, innovations and care for those affected with autism.
With more than 20 years of research and the help of his wife Cornelia Kennedy, Suskind used affinity therapy to develop a connection with his son. Affinity therapy uses the affected child’s passions to develop communication and social skills. For Owen, that passion was Disney.
“They use it as a ‘codebreaker’ to explain the world around them,” Suskind said.
The event was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, often seen around Washington at neuroscience-related events. Cases of autism in the United States have been most prevalent in Philadelphia and South Jersey, Fattah said.
“[It’s] partly because it is big here locally, but my interest is not really disease-specific,” Fattah said in a follow-up phone interview. “I am interested in finding cures for all 600-plus brain diseases and disorders.”
Through surveying parents, Suskind said he found that some popular passions include Disney, black and white movies from the 1940s, maps, trains, Minecraft and astronomy.
“Basically if you [have] a child, most parents know what lights them up, what engages them,” Suskind said. “It could be something they watch on TV. Pretty often, a movie that is pretty common, a song, some of the kids are very musical. Some kids, when asked, can say, ‘Here is what my thing is.’ Sometimes it takes the parents to spot it. Either way, once you find that, it is the first step in finding that language in and around that affinity that may be a pathway to communication.”
Suskind was speaking in front of Congress in Washington D.C. when he met Fattah last summer. The two men have since joined in a neuroscience conference in Tel Aviv, and Fattah thought Philadelphia should be the next destination.
Dr. Matt Tincani, chair of Temple’s Department of Psychological Organizational and Leadership Studies in Education, uses strength-based intervention, similar to affinity therapy.
“This is capitalizing on their special interests, but not just to get them together with other people with special interests or cultivate hobbies, but by using them to teach to communication,” Tincani said. “To teach social skills [and] using them to facilitate interactions with kids that don’t have autism.”
The New York Times reported that researchers at Yale, MIT, and England’s Cambridge University have begun working on the science.
Even with the added interest, Fattah said he believes future breakthrough will come from those that started the research in Philadelphia.
“There is a lot of interest. In fact, all around the world today, [buildings] are being colored in blue, because of the world-wide interest in autism,” Fattah said. “So I think there has been a lot of public awareness generated that has caused more money to be raised. This is a question not just about money. We also have to work on the science. Philadelphia has been at the forefront of this work, and I think when we find appropriate solutions for these challenges, you’ll see scientists and researchers here in Philadelphia as part of the solution.”
Stephen Godwin Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @StephenGodwinJr.