Life, Animated: A "Multiple Intelligences" Way to Think About Autism

Notes by Howard Gardner

By no means am I an expert on autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or what is now called the Autistic Spectrum. Nonetheless, when I was attempting to identify the separate intelligences, over thirty years ago, studies of autism were highly germane. One of the chief criterions for an intelligence is its strong existence, or its noticeable absence in a part of the population. Accordingly, I was very interested in prodigies. Most prodigies are not prodigious ‘across-the-board.’ Rather, they are especially strong in mathematics, in music, and/or in chess. By the same token, I was very interested in individuals with autism. Autistic individuals are virtually defined by their deficit in one or two areas: useful language and/or an understanding of other persons. And though it is scarcely the rule, many autistic individuals have a particular ‘island of strength’; for example, musical ability, mechanical ability, and/or skill in freehand drawing.

Of course, there has been a huge amount of research in this area in the intervening three decades. We are far better at diagnosing autism and at delineating types and subtypes along the autistic spectrum. We know something about the biology, the genetics, and the brain structure and functions of autistic individuals. And there have been numerous efforts to help autistic individuals, either by building on their areas of strength or by creating environments in which they are better able to accomplish their goals.

Still, I am quite sure that I was not alone in being stunned by the recently published book by noted journalist Ron Suskind, entitled Life, Animated. In this text, Suskind describes two decades in which he and his wife strove to help their autistic son Owen. An article summarizing some of the content from the book was published by the New York Times and is available by clicking here.

Of the various ‘treatments’ and experiences that the Suskinds went through with Owen, by far the most successful was the repeated viewing of Walt Disney full-length cartoon movies. While watching these movies innumerable times may have been tedious for the Suskind parents, the experience proved invaluable for their son. Through viewing the movies, and then replaying them in his own mind, Owen learned about the world of other persons. More specifically, he learned both about the range of emotions that individuals, including himself, experience; and how to talk about these experiences in ways that would make sense to others and to himself.

From an MI point of view, the movies were the catalyst or ‘trigger’ for awakening both of the intelligences that are classically weak in individuals with autism. The movies foregrounded various personal and emotional situations (love, jealousy, pride, fear), hence strengthening the personal intelligences; and provided a vocabulary with which to describe these personal situations, hence strengthening the linguistic intelligence. While it is no means clear that Walt Disney had these spheres as his original goals, his genius was to devise vehicles of entertainment that appealed across the globe, across the age spectrum, and, as we now see, across a range of human differences.