aec recap
Turning passion into pathways in school and life
At AEC’s Second General Session, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Ron Suskind shared a personal story about his son Owen’s autism diagnosis, the bleak outlook for his future and the family’s discovery of “passion as the pathway” to learning that enabled Owen to outperform all expectations.
As an up-and-coming reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering President Bill Clinton’s White House, Suskind and his young family moved to Washington, D.C., full of hope and excitement. Three months after the move, Suskind and his wife, Cornelia, noticed that their youngest son, 3-year-old Owen, was losing speech and no longer making eye contact. Soon thereafter, a specialist diagnosed Owen with autism. “We knew we had left the planet normal,” Suskind said. The prognosis was bleak — the doctor told them Owen may never speak again, deeming him uneducable and most likely headed for an institution.

As Owen withdrew further into himself, the family noticed the only thing that captured his attention were animated Disney movies. After years of therapy and minimal progress, Owen began communicating again by relating happenings in his own world to similar situations in Disney movies. “He’s using them to decode the world!” Suskind said on stage at AEC.

Over the next four years, the Suskinds led a “double life” in which they would go about their days normally, but their nights consisted of acting out scenes from Disney movies to connect with Owen. Owen’s speech developed enough that he enrolled in a private school for children with learning disabilities — however, after a couple of years, the school informed the Suskinds that it could not educate him. Depressed, Owen threw himself back into Disney movies and became enamored with drawing Disney sidekicks. He deemed himself “the protector of the sidekicks” and explained to his parents, “the sidekick helps the hero fulfill his destiny — without them, nothing happens, in movies or in life.”

“We were being educated by a child who was deemed uneducable,” Suskind told the crowd. His son opened up his way of thinking —“Learning happens everywhere,” he said. Today, Owen is thriving as an adult, living in his own apartment in an assisted living community and speaking to gatherings around the world as a “proud autistic man.”

Witnessing and being a part of Owen’s learning journey opened up new ways of thinking for Suskind.

“Everything you’re seeing here is just an extreme and powerful version of what happens everywhere in the land of learning and education — passion as pathway,” said Suskind. “We all know this in our life, we all have deep interests. If we can turn those pathways — those interests — into avenues for learning, we own those lessons. That is when we are at our best and that’s when we connect with others.”

Suskind now works with therapists and neuroscientists to spread the idea of passion as pathway, especially in relation to neuro-diverse populations. He founded The Affinity Project, a research and technology group focused on building communication tools for neuro-diverse people.

“I think we’re all really sidekicks — we’re at our best when we help others fulfill their destinies.”
Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning
reporter and author
“The word ‘education’ has gotten beaten and battered and bruised for all sorts of wrong reasons in these partisan times,” Suskind said to the audience. “There is no pressure point in society that defines who we are like public education, and there is nobody who stands right in the mouth of the fire like school board members. You’re citizens that step into the role of public. Citizens who say I am here to represent the public good. History bends toward public. The idea that everyone has a chance. The idea that every person is seen as a valued citizen in a democracy and deserves an education.

“I think we’re all really sidekicks — we’re at our best when we help others fulfill their destinies,” he concluded.

Learn more about the Suskind family’s journey in Ron Suskind’s book, Life, Animated, and the Emmy-winning documentary of the same name.