A small boy with autism who regained the ability to communicate by quoting the scripts of Disney animated movies yields powerful lessons for all learning, argued his father, author and journalist Ron Suskind, at the March 6 Cubberley Lecture of the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
Owen Suskind was 3 when he was diagnosed with regressive autism. After a year of silence he spoke what sounded like a single word, something like “juice.”
Eventually, his parents realized their frightened child was quoting Ursula, the Disney villain of The Little Mermaid who holds a character’s voice hostage: “Just your voice.”
Ron Suskind’s memoir, Life, Animated, and the Emmy-winning documentary film based on the book, tell how Owen’s family tapped his communicative powers by engaging him in dialogue from the 50 Disney videos Owen memorized during his silence. Though Suskind was advised to limit Owen’s Disney time as a reward for tasks completed, he — and many educators in the lecture’s affiliated panel discussion — now say that the deep affinities held by Owen and other autistic people are better explored as pathways into consciousness.
“He learns through his passion just like the rest of us. That’s where we learn best,” Suskind said. “Our passions become us and we them.”
The talk was the first public event of the GSE’s new initiative on Learning Differences and the Future of Special Education, said Daniel Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean and Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology at the GSE. Through research, policy work and practitioner training, Schwartz said, the GSE will pursue its vision “to prepare all learners to thrive in a dynamic future.”
“Not the fictitious average learner,” Schwartz said. “We have to learn to figure out to reach all learners. How do we give them resilience and knowledge for a changing world?”
Schwartz said Stanford is ideally placed to make a difference. “We have a top medical school, top humanities school, seven top schools physically co-located. You need all these disciplines to get after the whole child, including the child with learning differences.”
“We have to learn to figure out to reach all learners. How do we give them resilience and knowledge for a changing world?”
— Daniel Schwartz, Dean, Stanford Graduate School of Education
Though Owen wasn’t present at the talk, his persistence and courage, conveyed in video clips and his father’s impassioned words, touched the capacity crowd of school leaders, education entrepreneurs, county officials and current and former students in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).
“One of the things I love about the story of Owen is that Owen got to lead,” said Elizabeth Kozleski, the Dean’s Scholar for Teaching and Learning at the GSE, in the panel discussion following Suskind’s talk. “He got to tell you about the world he was in, and he got you to follow him.
“That, to me, is the glory of what you did with Owen, and it is a thing we can give to our teachers is the permission to get off-script and do that.”
Yet the event also pointed up the magnitude of the task. Thirteen percent of all students are identified as having special needs, Schwartz said, while 49 of 50 U.S. states have a shortage of special education teachers. It takes significant resources to support a child with autism, Suskind said: “It’s a lot, and most people don’t have it.”
Funding and policy issues lag research advances.
“We’re working with 1970s policy tools on 21st century problems,” said another panelist, William S. Koski, PhD ’03, the Eric & Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education and Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, and Professor of Education (by courtesy) at the GSE.
Panelist Heidi M. Feldman, the Ballinger-Swindells Professor in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine, challenged the idea that institutional changes to support learning differences are too costly. “I think you have to take that one straight on,” she said. “We’re not on a lifeboat. We can afford it if we prioritize it.”
Acceptance is hard for parents, Feldman acknowledged.
“I try to get in touch with what parents already know, not necessarily above the eyebrows but in the chest and the tummy, so we can feel it and talk about it,” said Feldman.
“One client, a mom, told me, ‘You wouldn’t let me escape from my reality, so I had to put my energy into making this OK.’”
Ultimately, Suskind found nobility in his son’s quest for language and meaning. “Folks on the spectrum are extreme expressions of the rest of us,” said. Suskind, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal about Cedric Jennings, an inner-city Washington, D.C., youth who aspired to an Ivy League education.
Another panelist, Maricela Montoy-Wilson, ’08, ’09, principal at Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School, urges her teachers to use their students’ affinities as teaching tools. “When we include the affinity concept, we’re allowing students to think how these standards are relevant to them,” she said.
“The neuroactivity is clear that when we lean in to students’ interests, they’re going to achieve more. And that requires our teachers to really know who their students are and to do the work of connecting.”
Suskind shared studies from Harvard and MIT showing that MRIs of autistic learners hearing stories about their passions reveal jumps in neuroactivity, even in language-deficient learners’ language-processing parts of the brain.
Stanford student panelist Zina Jawadi, ’18 (biology), MS ’19 (bioengineering), described being a self-advocate after a hearing-loss diagnosis at age 3 made her feel “almost as if my life had ended.”
“The key is just to keep on moving forward,” Jawadi said. With years of intensive speech therapy, she developed strategies such as giving visual cues to her teachers that she could not hear and needed repetition.
“There will be people in life who will doubt you no matter what you do. The key is to identify doubters early on and ignore them. You need the believers to keep on believing.”
Ron Suskind is helping to develop technology for the autism-spectrum community that will unite users around their affinities.
“Almost everything we’re building for the spectrum community has wider application in education,” he said. “The folks on the spectrum help us look with clarity and essence at what all students need. They live in their passions, kind of like artists or even some scientists.”
He quoted Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: “ ‘Life is strange and changeful, and the crystal is in the steel at the point of fracture....’ The crystals are where the light gets in.
“Those crystals are not accorded respect in education. But change is coming.”
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