Updated: Nov 23, 2021
By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" Blog Series - Slice #22
Photo credit: Shutterstock
You know, I love snow globes. I have five of them in my room, and they are a magnificent crystal ball of wonder. When you shake them up and watch the snowflakes sprinkle everywhere, it makes this beautiful winter wonderland that makes the world inside look lifelike and alive. But if you think about it, life goes on in the snow globe as you see the snowfall and the figurines interact with one another or by themselves (even though they are just lifeless objects that are not real). You're just standing on the outside wanting to fit in, wanting to interact with them, wanting to be part of their world. However, no matter how much you want to, you can't because you don't know-how, so you're just left alone on the outside while life on the inside goes on without you. That's what it felt like for me in grade school and middle school, and this is what it feels like for many autistic people in social interactions. We want to fit in and interact, but no matter how hard we try, we don't know how, so we're often by ourselves while life continues around us.
Speaking in allegoric terms, Disney's The Little Mermaid represents that as we see the main protagonist Ariel looking from the outside into the human world, wanting to fit in and interact with others (especially her love interest Eric), but she couldn't at first because she didn't know-how. As a result, the world does not accept Ariel's differences, and she is left alone while life continues without her. Ariel may have given up her voice to make herself part of a world not naturally made for her, but in more ways, than one she has helped autistic people find their voice so they can feel more included in today's world.
An example of finding one's independence is noted in a San Diego Union-Tribune article titled Disney's 'Mermaid.' The report shows how a woman named Katrina Aguilar, a professional singer with autism, found her voice. The Little Mermaid helped Aguilar find her voice and the career
of her dreams. In the article, feature writer Pam Kragen explained Katrina's autism journey and how it was positively impacted by The Little Mermaid when she states, "Aguilar was nonverbal when she was initially diagnosed with autism, and needing high-supports at age 4. Then, she said, the colors, music, and magic of the animated undersea tale made her want to express herself to her parents so desperately that at age five, she started to talk and, eventually, sing. Now 32, Aguilar's a vocal performance graduate of the Boston Conservatory." Aguilar also shared how the movie The Little Mermaid impacted her singing career. She states, "On Sunday evening at Peñasquitos Lutheran Church, she'll present the San Diego premiere of Part of Your World, an 80-minute cabaret show, where she tells her difficult but uplifting autism journey with 16 songs from her favorite Disney animated films. The concert is a fundraiser for San Diego's Autism Tree Project Foundation."
Additionally, Pam explained how The Little Mermaid and other Disney movies helped autistic individuals like Katrina Aguilar. Pam says, "Aguilar said the Disney movies not only helped her learn to talk and to sing, but they also helped her cope with the loneliness she felt because of autism. Two songs in her show, Part of Your World, sung by the mermaid Ariel, and "God Help the Outcasts" from Disney's TheHunchback of Notre Dame, are both about outsiders struggling; to fit in." Katrina expresses in her own words that the songs in her show are very personal when she states, "Those songs are absolutely about isolation when all you want is to be understood and accepted. You may have it hard, but then you open your eyes and see so many other types (of people) who have had it even harder, and you feel for them. It's a very personal show." So, as you can see, The Little Mermaid positively impacted Katrina Aguilar as it helped her grow as an individual and singer. Similarly, The Little Mermaid and other Disney movies breathe new life for another autistic individual named Owen Suskind. Not only has he been able to find his voice, but his story found its place in the hearts of audiences everywhere through a memoir and documentary titled Life Animated.
In an article titled How Disney gave voice to a boy with autism, journalist Saskia Baron explains the beginning of the documentary and Owen's early life as being happy and full of life. Baron continues to state, "Near the beginning of the new documentary Life, Animated, a home movie filmed by Cornelia Suskind in November 1993. Her husband, Ron Suskind, is playing in the garden of their old house with their son Owen, a little boy with dark curly hair and a winning smile. He is waving a toy sword, and Ron asks him, "Owen, who are you?" Owen grins up at his dad and replies, "I'm Peter Pan, and you're Captain Hook." Together they tumble and play fight in the autumn leaves." Afterward, she explained how Owen suddenly changed and went from being bright, happy, and bubbly to withdrawn, isolated, and unhappy. He started losing his motor skills, and as stated by his dad, who is also an American journalist, "weaving around like someone walking with his eyes closed." Later it was discovered by a specialist in 1994 that Owen was diagnosed with autism. Baron then explained how Owen's first few months were full of fear and confusion for his parents. Furthermore, even though Owen had no violent, aggressive behavior, they feared that he would never be independent on his own and that they would have to take care of him for the rest of his life.
In a 2016 ABC News report (Life, Animated Parents Describe How Animated Characters Helped Son With Autism Connect), journalists Deborah Roberts and Majorie McAfee explain that Owen, who finds comfort in watching animated movies, finally had a breakthrough. Roberts states, "Owen had been watching "The Little Mermaid" and started saying what sounded like, "Jucervus, Jucervus." She reported in the article that Cornelia thought he wanted more juice, but Ron would soon realize that Owen was not talking about juice but rather the movie he was watching. After rewinding the film two more times, Owen's parents realized their son's fixation on a scene where the sea witch Ursula stated to Ariel that to be human, it wouldn't cost much, "Just your voice." Then Roberts described Ron's reaction to his newest discovery as exciting and
overwhelming joy when she stated, "I grab Owen and say, 'Just your voice!' and he looks at me for the first time in a year and says, "Jucervus," Ron said. "Pandemonium broke out in the bedroom."
Watching the film Life Animated, I could relate to Owen in more than one way about some of the many things in his life. For example, he stopped talking at three years old. I didn't start talking until I was three years old. Owen taught himself how to read through Disney movies. I taught myself how to read through Sesame Street. Owen talks to himself sometimes, while I talk to myself all the time. Also, The Little Mermaid played an influential role in Owen's autism journey, just like how a particular Broadway Musical (that I will talk more in detail about in a future blog post) played an influential role in my autism journey.
Photo credit: Verge of Independence Project
In conclusion, the 1989 animated movie played an essential pivotal role in the lives of Katrina Aguilar and Owen Suskind. Even though The Little Mermaid and its starring character Ariel are not marked autism-specific, the autism canon representation of this movie speaks volumes loud enough that only people in the autism community can hear. The Little Mermaid (and other Disney movies) helped two autistic individuals find their voice and grow into influential people today. So, the next time you watch the movie (or movie trilogy), be sure to give your voice in support of an animated mermaid. She helps people on the spectrum find their voices and break through the snow globe, helping them finally have the courage to interact, fit in, and become part of the neurotypical world. Also, suppose you're a Philadelphia resident like myself. In that case, you can give your voice to the Broadway Musical Production of The Little Mermaid, where it will be playing at The Walnut Street Theater from November 16, 2021 - January 2, 2022, and tickets are on sale now!