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Journalist Presents App to Help Children With Autism Communicate

By Sonia Kim and Michael J. Won, Contributing Writers

At the Graduate School of Education Thursday Pulitzer-winning journalist Ron Suskind discussed his experience raising his son, who has autism, and the creation of an app to help children with autism communicate.

Suskind, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, chronicled his journey raising and connecting with his son, interspersing his narrative with clips from the movie "Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism," which is adapted from his eponymous book.

Suskind began the talk by describing his son, who was diagnosed with autism at age three. According to Suskind, his son had nearly no potential to speak and often could not make eye contact at that time. However, through watching Disney movies and by talking under the guise of Disney characters, Suskind was able to communicate and build a relationship with his son.

Since then, Suskind said he has realized the importance of using the unique interests and passions of children with autism to help them express their thoughts. Suskind and his wife came up with the idea of using an app to employ the power of animated movies as a means of communication. The app, called “Sidekicks App for Autism,” was developed by a team of neuroscientists and programmers.

Suskind described the app as a Siri-like platform in which parents can talk to their children through the voices of various animated characters from movies including “Toy Story," "Harry Potter," “Star Wars," and various Disney films.

Suskind argued that there are many ways parents and education can help children with autism develop their full potential. The key to achieving this, he said, is to help children find their passion.

“They’re square pegs in a world that prizes only round holes. If you shave off those edges, you’re shaving off their best parts,” he said.

Suskind also mentioned that parents of autistic children can be under considerable stress. He said as a result of this pressure, parents have difficulty embracing their children’s interests and passions.

Meghan Hughes, a GSE student who attended the event, said she appreciated the forum.

“I think it was really powerful and insightful. Especially coming from a background where I know people with autism, I thought he articulated his story in a beautiful and relatable way," Hughes said.

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