Acclaimed journalist and author Ron Suskind will deliver the 2019 Cubberley Lecture at Stanford, sharing his personal experience of raising a child with autism and leading a conversation about how to support children with different learning needs and abilities.
Suskind is the author of six best-selling books, including a groundbreaking memoir, Life, Animated, which tells the story of his family’s journey with his son Owen, now 27, who was diagnosed with regressive autism at age 3. A documentary based on the book was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017 and won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary last year. Suskind also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a series of articles he wrote for the Wall Street Journal about an inner-city high school student in Washington, D.C., who aspired to attend an Ivy League university, which became the basis for his book A Hope in the Unseen.
Following his talk, Suskind will lead a panel discussion with five members of the Stanford community:
The March 6 event kicks off a symposium on learning differences and the future of special education, where leading scholars from around the country will gather to map research agendas for the field. Recent advances in brain and learning sciences, assistive technologies, data collection and analysis, and our understanding of how sociocultural factors influence learning are creating opportunities to design effective educational approaches to meet the needs of diverse learners. The symposium is among the new activities underway at the GSE that encourage a collaborative approach to solving some of the biggest challenges in education.
We spoke with Suskind in advance of his visit to Stanford.
As a longtime political journalist, what moved you to write a memoir about your family’s experience?
I was living something of a double life for many years. When Owen was diagnosed, I was living a very public life as the senior national affairs reporter at the Wall Street Journal, writing about America, its struggle with democracy and its role in the world. After he was diagnosed, our family was thrown into crisis. Owen changed, but we all began to change. And I changed direction as a journalist.
I began searching for left-behind people in parts of America—the blighted inner cities, the hollows of Appalachia, and then around the world. We kept what was happening in our home private, but the most dramatically left-behind person I knew was living in our house, deemed uneducable, probably slated for an institution. In a way, Owen—and all those characters from my books—were in a conversation about dignity, the fundamental human essence and what gives our lives meaning.
When Owen was about 19 years old, he’d grown in awareness of how people saw him, and it troubled him. [My wife] and I were both writers, and at one point Owen, talking about how “people don’t see me for who I am,” issued a kind of challenge for us to help change how the world looked at people like him. Cornelia said, “Would the kind of book we could write have helped us 15 years ago, when we were in hell?” We looked at each other and said, “Of course it would.” And off we went.
After Owen was diagnosed with late-onset autism at age 3, the only way you could communicate with him was through Disney characters’ voices. What did you learn from this tactic that could help other parents?
Folks on the spectrum have powerful interests that have been seen largely as obsessions—nonproductive, perseverative, wheel-in-the-ditch obsessions. For a long time the view has been to cut these obsessions off, if possible, or use them as a behavioral tool—as a reward, say, if your kid is able to do certain things in school.
We realized early on that Owen had a particular fixation on Disney movies. He had memorized every one, for the most part, that had been made since “Snow White” in 1937. After the autism, he couldn’t speak, but he loved to watch them silently—and we started to see that he was seeing more in these movies than we saw. He was using them as a kind of map and a mirror to himself, a vessel as he moved through the world. We realized this intense interest in Disney wasn’t a prison, it was a pathway—through which all the key emotions and cognitive processes flowed.
That’s what we all do, have always done, with the content we embrace—whether it’s movies or art, literature or poetry, the images we hold dear to our souls. And it's what people are doing with enormous energy in this age when all knowledge is universal, discoverable and on demand. We’re drinking deep, from the earliest ages, nourishing our affinities. We use them as a mirror to ourselves, our humanity. What you love is more and more who you are.
That’s what Owen was doing—in an incredibly intense, singular way, often to the exclusion of much else. But it was a thing of extraordinary value to help him find his way on his own.
You started an organization, The Affinity Project, to develop technologies to support kids with autism. Can you share what you’re working on?
When the book came out in 2014, we were contacted by thousands of people around the world, many of them neurodiverse or family members of those who were. Folks on the spectrum expressed a desire to connect with people who love what they love, the way Owen did through Disney movies, in some real-time way where they can feel safe, as private about their person as they want to be—just like in real life—and yet intimately connected.
We had a mandate that long shaped our every waking hour: to find a way to connect with our son. We’d been experimenting for nearly two decades with the many ways connection can be defined. Now, after a few years of heavy lifting, we’ve built a new kind of screen-sharing, co-viewing technology that allows people to connect and share videos—we call it "campfiring"—in real time. People build clubhouses with what they love that become a landscape of passions, or affinities, where people gather. Spectrum folks can meet people like them there, or meet the wider world.
It’s an alternative to the attention-getting toxicity of social media as we know it—a way to harness what we now know about the power of connecting through affinities for people on the spectrum. As is so often the case, I think they’ll lead the wider population. Gathering around what we love, and having that be the avenue of connection, reveals the human character in a different light, and taps our deepest potential. We’re in a Gutenberg moment.
The Cubberley Lecture is presented annually by the GSE. The 2019 lecture and panel discussion will take place on March 6 at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public and will be livestreamed on the GSE’s Facebook page.
Learn more about the GSE’s Strategic Vision and the initiative on Learning Differences and the Future of Special Education.
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