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Ron Suskind Talks Family, Autism Communication App at Harvard Ed School

The Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education. By Lu Shao
By Amir K. Hamilton, Crimson Staff Writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron S. Suskind lectured on autism and identity at the Graduate School of Education Tuesday evening, sharing his experiences raising a son with autism and his efforts to develop a therapy app.

Suskind, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, was a senior national affairs reporter at the Wall Street Journal and has also contributed to the New York Times Magazine and Esquire. In 2014, Suskind authored “Life, Animated,” a memoir detailing his son Owen’s life with autism. The book was made into a documentary of the same name, and the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2016.

Suskind said Owen’s growing awareness of other people’s perception of him as he got older motivated Suskind to write the memoir.

“I think what triggered it was when our son Owen, who’s on the autism spectrum, was about nineteen, and he said to me and my wife Cornelia one night, ‘people don’t see me for who I am,’” Suskind said. “He was starting to become aware of the way people were looking at him.”

“We would have to write a book with the goal of changing the way people see people like our son,” he said.

In “Life, Animated,” Suskind writes about how Owen’s affinity for Disney films helped him develop the ability to speak after years of mutism. More recently, Suskind built a team of experts to design a communication app called Sidekicks for children with autism. The app uses YouTube clips concerning the child’s interests to improve their communication with parents and therapists.

“They can share the video in real time, but remotely, which is crucial,” Suskind said. “None of that energy and anxiety from mom. Kind of private, kind of not, kind of like we’re sitting at the couch looking at the TV, side by side.”

As part of the app development, Suskind partnered with the Project on Affinities and Language at MIT, where researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan brain activity of people on the autism spectrum while using the app.

“These are showing key areas of neural function, many of them not expected to activate in any way among spectrum populations,” he said referencing images from the research. “She is processing that language in a neurotypical fashion.”

“For a spectrum family, this is an orchestra and crescendo. It’s hope and joy,” he said of the findings associated with the app.

Miso Kwak, a student at the Graduate School of Education who attended the talk, said she was impressed by Suskind’s lecture and work.

“He’s thinking about autism through the lens of strength rather than deficit,” she said.

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