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Life Animated

Last Friday we took our staff INSET programme to The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. ‘No school, so the staff can have a day out at the cinema?’ I hear you say…

Yes!

At The Phoenix, we turned our attention to developing our collective understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and how to best support children with this special educational need. ASD is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world and their environment. Around one in a hundred of the UK population will have a diagnosis of autism. At Highgate Primary this figure is significantly higher.

Nominated for an Academy Award in the category Best Documentary Feature, ‘Life, Animated’, tells the story of Owen Suskind, who at the age of three changed from being an outgoing, happy and expressive child to a boy who stopped talking, almost overnight. The film documents how Owen and his family adjusted to this and his eventual diagnosis of autism.

One of the most prevalent features of ASD can be the presence of focused interest areas, for example, trains, dinosaurs or traffic lights. These interests may change from time to time, however for 23-year-old Owen Suskind, his love of Disney films has been sustained. And watching the documentary, it’s easy to see why.

Disney characters are particularly appealing to Owen because, quite simply, they are easy to relate to. They are consistent in their behaviour, and their exaggerated voices, mannerisms and expressions make them easy to read and understand. Rather than seeing Owen’s love of Disney as a negative ‘obsession’, his family use the characters and themes of Disney cartoons as the code to enter into his world, supporting him to understand his emotions, his relationships with others and his place in the wider world.

The film explores Owen’s journey into adulthood. He understands his developing independence through understanding ‘The Lion King’, his experience of rejection through ‘Toy Story’ and feelings of loneliness through Mowgli in ‘The Jungle Book’. There is one particularly touching scene as Owen, who is soon to move from the family home to his own apartment, takes a break from his packing to watch the corresponding scene from ‘Dumbo’. Although it was dark in the cinema, I sensed many wobbly bottom lips in East Finchley.

‘Life, Animated’ makes for a very emotional experience for the viewer. As the lights went up, it was clear that just about everyone at The Phoenix was in pieces. Our SENCo, Becca, told me that the film had the same effect on the Disney lawyers. Having worked in a previous career with Disney’s legal department, I can reveal that, as a group, they are not well known for their high levels of empathy. Apparently, on viewing the film, they agreed to hand over permissions for all the clips – quite an achievement! The director, Roger Ross Williams recalls this as, ‘the day I made the lawyers cry’. Friday was clearly the day he made our teachers do the same.

Gaining insight into ASD through the film ‘Life, Animated’ was a valuable experience for our staff, and will help us to understand the challenges faced by some our children and their families. However I felt that the wider learning for us is how every child’s special interests can be a powerful tool for supporting their learning. The film highlights how important it is for us to be creative and flexible, and to explore children’s interests in order to motivate and engage. Rather than expecting children to adapt to our world, we need to consider how we can adapt to theirs. This is often referred to as being ‘child centred’, something I imagine all schools would say they are but ‘Life, Animated’ shows that we need to go much further than simply paying lip service to this phrase if we are going to get the absolute best from of our children.

William