2016-10-26 / Home

‘Life, Animated’ film drives home lives of local special needs families

Voice staff

The Newman family is pictured at the South Jersey premier of “Life, Animated.” They are (from left) Eric, Max and Linda Newman. The Newman family is pictured at the South Jersey premier of “Life, Animated.” They are (from left) Eric, Max and Linda Newman. Watching the South Jersey premier of the documentary “Life, Animated,” Linda Newman was struck by how much the coming-of-age story of 23-year-old Owen Suskind related to her own son Max’s life and that of so many other South Jersey young adults with special needs.

The poignant film, based on the memoir of Pulitzer Prize winning political journalist Ron Suskind, revolves around his autistic son’s obsession with Disney, and how the classic morality tales were a spark that helped the boy find his voice and build meaningful relationships with his family and others.

“Disney is so pervasive in our life and remains pervasive as one of Max’s favorite topics,” said Newman, chairwoman of the Special Needs Coalition of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, which brought the movie to Carmike Theater in Voorhees. “It’s a topic that lets him participate in a conversation at a level that is typical. He can’t always have that kind of conversational exchange with other topics.”

What also hit home, she said, was the film’s focus on Owen’s trials and successes while transitioning to independence and how heavily the process weighs not only on Owen and his parents but his older brother Walt.

“It’s the journey we’re on now,” said Newman, noting that Max is also 23. “We’re preparing for Max’s next step: Where will he live? How will he be supported from a safety standpoint, an activities standpoint? What will he do for transportation? All the aspects for him to live a structured, productive, fun and safe life need to be taken care of. There’s financial worries and sustainability worries, and that was the message reinforced in this documentary.” Some 250 people attended the South Jersey showing of the film that has garnered glowing reviews from critics and standing ovations from film festival audiences. The event, one of two fundraisers for the Coalition, helped emphasize the great needs fueling the coalition’s most ambitious project to date: The creation of The Navigator, a comprehensive resource and indexed Internet-based repository designed to connect people with disabilities and their families to services and information in both the Jewish and general community. Set to launch in February to coincide with Jewish Disabilities Month, the Navigator will be staffed part-time by a live human.

“It’s not just the Newmans and the Suskinds facing this dilemma and looking for answers,” she said. “You’re supposed to prepare for that transition while your loved one is still in high school, but it’s a scary process for a lot of families. And often—without a perfectly laid plan—the loved one leaves high school and is not prepared. Without a strong knowledgeable support system, they spend a lot of time under-engaged.”

While the South Jersey Jewish community has built up high-quality special needs programs that span job training to a basketball league to sibling support groups, not everyone who could benefit easily finds all the pieces, she said, noting that people spend an average of 13 hours a month making calls and researching information.

The Navigator, first presented to the community at the Jewish Federation’s Community Shark Tank, received $20,000 seed money from Shark Tank. “Life Animated and the upcoming Shabbos Project, a weekend of Shabbos-related activities Nov. 10-12, are expected to raise another $5,000 necessary to fund the Navigator in the first year.

While putting pieces in place for special needs loved ones is often overwhelming, advocates like Newman say that films like “Life, Animated,” TV shows like “Speechless,” a comedy with Minnie Driver about a family with a special needs child, and even reality TV shows like “Born Like This,” have helped spread awareness of the challenges young adults with special needs face.

For Will Hoheisel, 23, “Life, Animated” was so moving because it explained autism from the vantage point of someone his own age experiencing it in real time.

“I was able to relate to some of Owen’s mannerisms as an autistic person, particularly in how he likes to keep things orderly, has difficulty when dealing with the unexpected, mutters things under his breath and reacts enthusiastically to his favorite movie scenes,” noted Hoheisel, a Haddon Township resident. “Second, I saw a lot in the relationships within the movie, particularly between Owen and his family.”

“Just like my family has done for me these past 23 1/2 years, Owen’s family showed such amazing unconditional love to him, and they were willing to both accept and build upon what made him unique!” 

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