Dear Pixar, Thank You


Entertainment seems to be a hot button issue these days, especially when it comes to parenting. Terms like “screen time” put a sour taste in our mouths, and we’re constantly told to limit the amount of time that our kids get in front of computers, iPads, TVs, and the like. There’s no doubt that having kids lead active lives is ridiculously important, but today I’d like to shift the focus a bit and give a shout out to some of the most brilliant and creative minds of this generation. Today I raise my virtual glass to the fine folks at Pixar.

If you’ve been following my ramblings for very long you now that I enjoy a good flick. It’s a great opportunity for me to escape reality for just a little while and it allows me leave the worries of life next to the electronic kiosk just before I buy that popcorn with extra butter flavoring. Brady has seen Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 in the theater and has loved the experience both times. He’s always ready for the next outing to the movies and never forgets to remind us when we drive past the theater. Really, he never forgets. Ever. Collin, on the other hand, has never really been too involved when it comes to the theater experience. I remember taking him to see Toy Story 3, watching about ten minutes of the movie, and then going out into the hall and watching reruns of Mickey Mouse clubhouse on my iPhone for the next two hours. The theater just isn’t his thing.

Because of that it may surprise you when I say that Collin is the biggest Pixar fan in our family, not Brady. It just turns out his movie viewing venue of choice happens to be our living room, not a movie theater. In fact, Pixar has evolved into something much more than entertainment in our home. It’s become a gift. It’s become a gift of happiness, communication, and growth. I’m convinced that their films have played a major role in helping Collin break out of his world of autism and join our family.

Like many autistic children, Collin experienced a “lights out” phase. There was a period in his life that started at about 18 months where the light was almost completely gone from his eyes. It was the most empty feeling to look into our child’s eyes, who had been so interactive with us previously, and see very little coming back. Our biggest fear has always been that he’d be inside that alternate world forever. That we’d never get to “meet” Collin. We would play with Collin for hours on end trying to get some type of response, and feedback was always minimal. When he was 2 I remember buying the Cars DVD for us to watch. We didn’t notice a huge impact initially but as we began to add to the Pixar collection, we began to notice an alertness about him as we watched the movies. After the alertness came the light. We saw the light start to come back, and even though he still wasn’t talking, we knew he was still in there. He reacted to the voices of Woody and Lightning McQueen. We could tell by his reactions that he knew when the exciting parts of the movie were happening. Pixar had become our skeleton key for unlocking the gateway from his world back to ours. I’ll never forget him smiling and laughing out loud whenever Mater would blurt out one of his trademark one liners: “Yeah, like tuh-mater, but without the ‘tuh.’”

As time went on Collin became pretty obsessed with Pixar movies. He still wasn’t talking much at all but he would pick Monsters, Inc. out of a stack of ten movies without hesitation. The same with The Incredibles, any of the Toy Story movies, and Cars was always a big hit. It got to the point where before he had even seen a Pixar movie, he could identify the case and pick it out of a pile. We assumed he was using the iconic cover art that had become a staple for the Pixar films to identify them, but then one day we found out he was reading the titles. How did we know? We were in our family room and I can’t remember if it was Jackie or me, but one of us went into the kitchen where Collin was playing with the letter refrigerator magnets like he had done many times before. This time, however, he left us a message:

“Disney Pixar Animation Studios Proudly Presents, A Toy Story”

I remember seeing the words and fighting to hold back the tears. Collin was talking to us for the first time in his life. It still hadn’t hit me that he wasn’t even three years old and was constructing full sentences, even if they were just things he had seen before. At that point I really didn’t care. All I cared about was that our son was starting to communicate with his mom and dad. He was telling us how much he loved Pixar movies. By that time, if there were any Pixar movies we didn’t own, we made sure they were added to the library in a hurry.

Ratatouille became a new obsession. Collin loved watching Remy in the kitchen and started to emulate him. We’d find him in the kitchen filling glasses with water and climbing on top of the counters. Running his head under the water tap in the kitchen gave him that classic drowned rat look.

Then came the movie UP. UP is the movie that changed everything for us. Not only was it one of my personal favorite Pixar movies, it was also the one that seemed to have the biggest impact on Collin. For the longest time we’d watch him run up to the mailbox, place his hand on the side, and open the door to check the mail. It became part of a routine and we couldn’t figure out for the life of us why he was so obsessed with the mail. Would he be a future Cliff Craven? Without fail he’d repeat the same steps every time we got near a mailbox. Then one day as he placed his hand on the side of the mailbox, everything came together for me. He was remembering Ellie. He was placing his hand on the mailbox because he was empathizing with Carl for his loss. It was his way of showing compassion.

My 18 month old with a blank stare had become a four year old who was showing real human emotion. The light was back in his eyes and his love for people had become one of his strongest character traits. He understood loss and he wanted to help fix it. My son was growing in ways we didn’t know were possible.

Now Collin will watch Monsters, Inc. and hide during the scary parts. It is, by far, the most adorable thing anyone could ever witness. His reactions are “normal.” He’s interacting with the Pixar movies the same way that most kids do. He smiles and gets nervous. He laughs and he occasionally cries. With every new character and every new joke he grows a little bit more.

Collin still has severe speech delays, but he will try his hardest to pronounce the title of every single Pixar movie we own now. He’s perfected UP. His Ratatouille is a little rough around the edges, but I can barely pronounce that one myself. He tries so hard to say them all correctly. He wants so badly to talk to us about one of the things he loves so much.

Dear Pixar, thank you for using your creativity to give my son something to be passionate about. Thank you for helping him come back to us. We notice more light in his eyes every single day, and you’ve played a major role in helping us find it all over again.

This is just a note from a dad letting you know that what you do matters in a bigger way than you may ever know.

Thank you.

Comments

  1. Lindsi says

    The first five minutes of every Pixar movie ate definitely my favorite. The previews are always delightful too. ;)
    You nailed it though… The light is there again.

  2. says

    Ryan…Your letter was so touching to me. I am the mother of two autistic teenagers. My experience with animated movies is much like yours has been. They opened up a whole new world to my boys. Over the years my standard response to friends, family members, and bystanders about “viewing time” is, “Walk a mile in my shoes before you weigh in.” My older son is now thanks to the influence of tennis channel an accomplished junior tennis player. Autism has been an asset to him as a player. My younger son asked for a light board for Christmas and hopes to be an animator. A family friend works for Pixar which inspired him. His approach is old school but he is creating his own animated films. Not bad for a boy that can only read at the 4th grade level. I tell you all this to encourage you. Go with what works and don’t let all the folks that haven’t walked a mile in your shoes tell you any different. Keep pressing on…fight the good fight!

    • ryan says

      Preach sister! That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned while raising Collin. I’m VERY slow to make any judgments anymore because we just never know.

  3. says

    Seen on Twitter:
    “@ChrisChua007: The father of an autistic child says “Thanks” to Pixar. This makes me so proud. ryandsullivan.com/dear-pixar-tha…”

    Those are the words of Pixar animator, Chris Chua. Your words made it through.

    What an amazing and touching story. Thanks for sharing it! :D

  4. Cheri says

    I have wanted to work at Pixar since I saw “Toy Story” in theaters at age six. I am at a shaky time in my journey and this story comes as a reaffirmation for me. What this company does is why I must be a part of it. This story is indescribable.

  5. says

    I am right there with you. My daughter is a teenager and I still have yet to “meet” her. I look forward to every little glimmer into her heart and mind that comes through these sorts of things.

    And your writing touched me deeply. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I am currently trying to spread awareness through a project I created. If you will watch it and share it, I would be ever so grateful:
    http://iheartpurplestuff.blogspot.com/2012/01/wanted-awareness-respect-acceptance.html

  6. says

    fantastic. i could feel the tugs at my heart strings at the mention of the mailbox. delightful. i am very happy for you and your family that you have found a way to communicate through art.
    exploding fist bumps all around….

  7. says

    Once again, a very moving post & once again, showing us that Collin can be way smarter than us “regular” people! Those are the best movies AND they have messages in them as well. LOVE RYAN!

  8. Don says

    I cried at the first scene in Toy Story when I first saw it imaging all the hard work that had gone into it. Your story again has brought tears as I imagine something way deeper is afoot. What a wonderful account, thank you for sharing; and I second the thank you to Pixar for enriching us all.

  9. says

    Dude. That’s it, I lost it. This post brought up so much for me. You know I have a boy not much different than yours. He is a little older, though, but five years ago we were in the same place you are. Our magic was Disney. It woke up our little guy, who was four then, and brought us all together. Now there was something we could share. Even now, five years later, when we have a rough patch, we can always go back there, sharing stories and memories for our trips. He can tell us where we went, what we did, in order, on each of our four visits. People ask me often how come we keep going back. I wrote a post about it on my blog after someone got under my skin about it. (sorry, don’t know how to link) Anyway, I loved your post. Beautifully done.

    • ryan says

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read it Chris. I know it was a little lengthy :)

      Keep up the amazing work!

  10. Kitt Hirasaki says

    Ryan, your story has made it to Pixar, and we are incredibly touched by how much the movies have meant to your son and your family.

    Just wanted to let you know how much joy and emotion hearing your story brings to us all.

    • ryan says

      Thank you Kitt! I love that it ended up getting to the people it was for. That means the world to me. You’re part of something huge there and my wife and I are forever grateful. Thanks for all you do.

  11. Karin says

    Thank you so much for your words here, Ryan. I found a link to this from reddit, where I browse the autism thread.

    Our son is very newly diagnosed (3 1/4) and we too have found a connection with Pixar movies. We have all of them, and he loves all of them. He is also mostly nonverbal. I feel exactly the same as you, in that his “light” seemed to go out at the same time. There seem to be tiny flickers/glimmers here and there, but it is hard to be patient waiting to see more of it.

    Thank you for your words and the hope and understanding they are giving to me and to others.

    • ryan says

      Thank you for sharing Karin. There is definitely hope so please never lose that. With early intervention and a good dose of Pixar, our son has improved SO MUCH. He’s an entirely different kid.

  12. says

    *wipes tears*

    One of my good friends has an autistic son who opens up when watching animated superheros. It’s amazing to see him light up as he tell about things he loves.

    This Christmas you can add Brave to your collection. (It comes to the theatres in the summer).

  13. Ben O'Brien says

    Fantastic post Ryan, you’ve broken down a grown man into tears, BIGTIME. As a father myself I understand how amazing it is to have your child communicate with you, but I can’t imagine the roller coaster your partner and yourself have been on with your son’s autism. I’m a huge Pixar fan too and have had the pleasure of collaborating with them on a charity project, the work they do goes far beyond just making movies, I am so excited to hear how their films have helped your son and others posting here, it’s wonderful. Keep on enjoying those movies together.

    • ryan says

      We plan to enjoy them for a long time to come. Although if they ever stop making movies I’m probably hosed as a parent ;)

      There’s no doubt in my mind that what they do behind the scenes isn’t any less remarkable than what they do on the big screen.

  14. Daria says

    This is a great story. So inspiring. I heart goes out to all parents with children with austism. My hat is off to you. Your bravery will bring these children through. Pixar is yet another tool. Thanks Pixar.

  15. Emily Rusk says

    Im seriously bawling right now… What a wonderful story =) thanks for reminding me how good the little stuff is!

  16. says

    RAD. This sounds remarkably like our son Andrew, who has severe autism and is also a huge Pixar fan. I’ll tell you what. I’ll watch that tractor tipping scene from CARS a million more times if it means that each time I get to hear his little squeal of joy followed by “more.” It gives him joy but for us it is a priceless commodity to hear him utter those few precious words he knows.
    Awesome post. First time here. Will be back.

  17. Erica says

    I had the same experience with my Son he is 2 and Autistic he don’t talk and he really didn’t interact well with people right around 18 mths. He loved watching Cars and Toy Story. I thought he was just listening most of the time. About 2 weeks ago he was at the speech therapists office for his weekly appointment. He was playing with a tractor and a Mater toy. He started mumbling and tipping the tractor over every few minutes then laughing it confused the teacher and myself. Finally we realized he would have the tractor there and would drive Mater to the side of the tractor then make Him jump and made a beeping sound, he would then tip the tractor over and make Mater Laugh. I looked at the therapist and we both said tractor tipping He was acting out the tractor tipping scene over and over for us. I started crying because I felt I was letting him watch to much tv and that it was a bad thing come to find out it is actually helping him be able to communicate with us. The therapist said to use the Cars movies to teach him words and sign language. I am so thankful like you to have a way to see my sons excitement and personality coming out even though it is through a cartoon.

    I hope you and your family continue to have great things as well.

  18. Melinda says

    Love this post! When Devin was 18months old we lost our oldest child and only daughter in a car accident she was 18yrs old. shortly thereafter Devin stopped talking…dr kept telling us it was just the trama in the family so swithed dr and got diagnosed with severe autism @ age 3. He absolutely loves pixar movies!! He is now more verbal however he speaks in “Pixarish” we are working with his therapists now teaching him the right times to say the phrases he repeats from the movies.
    He also writes the titles and disney pixar without help however the lettering is just like on the movies…even writes Tow Mater in an arch like on the door of the tow truck!

  19. Robin says

    Cars was the first movie that my son, who has autism, really connected with. There was something about it that reached him when no other program or activity did. From there, his sense of humor has really developed and his imitations of sounds from the movies have led to him quoting lines from the movies. Now he has discovered other movies and educational programs for kids his age on TV and talks and sings along with them sometimes. Hearing him sing has been one of the most wonderful things I have ever known.

  20. @alberthartman says

    Seems pretty clear to me that Pixar movies are talking in a language that the autistic youngsters can clearly understand. I think we should try to understand that language so that we can communicate more easily with them.

    And on a more ambitious note, languages influence the ways we think. If we can figure out theirs,, they may be able to discover and contribute to society things that normal languaged people could never imagine.

  21. Lydia says

    Hi Ryan,

    I also have an autistic son. He’s going to be three in March. My story is somewhat similar to yours. :)

    Some people may look down on how much TV my kids watch, but Team Umizoomi and Bubble Guppies have taught my son all kinds of things before I knew he was even capable of learning that stuff. Thanks to TV, I’m learning just how smart he really is, and lately, it’s even helping him start to use words in a meaningful way. Not only has he tried to mimic words he hears now, but if the characters ask him a yes/no question, he always answers correctly. A solid, confident “no”, or a “ssssss”, which is his version of “yes”. He’s also trying to verbally count to 5 now. I have TV to thank for a lot of this, because without it, I wouldn’t have known that Devlin was able to learn these things yet, and he’d still be falling behind. I always make the mistake of underestimating him. So, along the same vein, thank you, Nickelodeon.

    Give your little guy a hug from me.

  22. Philip Hatfield says

    Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, tweeted this a few minutes ago: “We’ve gotten messages like this from parents of autistic kids for the past 17 years. We never get tired of them. [link]”

    So glad to see your story is touching so many others.

  23. Ivan says

    @leeunkrich “We’ve gotten messages like this from parents of autistic kids for the past 17 years. We never get tired of them. http://www.ryandsullivan.com/dear-pixar-thank-

    The director of Toy Story 3 himself has heard your words! This just brought me to tears, I have always been the biggest Pixar fan, and this just makes it that much better, I am so happy that Collin found a way to reach you.

  24. says

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m a big Pixar fan and a father of two kids on the autism spectrum. (My wife is “The Autism News Lady” at speakingonthespectrum.blogspot.com.) This story really connected with me.

  25. katie says

    so nice to read this!!!!! my son is 3 and is autistic and speech is limited ,but he LOVES his movies and knows every line ,sound effect,and song of every dvd he has and he acts them out and uses props and will invite you in to play a part in the movie with him =) love love love this story thanks for sharing!!!!!

  26. mel says

    I have an autistic son 6 years old . having read the title I knew what I was going to read because these were also my words. I also thank from my hearts deep to pixar. My son like yours has gone first time to cinema and cars 2 was the first movie he could watch. he wasnt afraid of the lights and the nosie. Because he loves cars 2 characters very much. He has also? increased a lot of vocabularytrying to introduce his friends mcqueen, francesco and all others to us:) Thanks Pixar . And Ryan lots of love to your son . I love them more than anything in the world

  27. says

    I do honestly believe that these children are gifts. They have talents that non-autistic people do not have. They speak in ways, see things, enlighten our world. They think in different patterns, movements, colors, actions. I taught two kids with autism and I loved it. They made me think outside the box. Oftentimes we forget to see them for their talents and gifts…instead seeing them for their limitations.

    He’s lucky to have such committed, switched on parents.

    Happy movie watching :)

    Mish

  28. Beth Scott says

    My son is now 19 but at 3 he was non-verbal and diagnosed with severe autism. He connected with a UK program called Thomas and the Tank Engine, which was about a group of trains with human style faces and the various adventures they had. His speech began when he tried to repeat bits he’d heard on there, gradually becoming more confident and then using that speech in context. He moved on to Pokemon at around 7 years old and memorized every character, his first sign of caring about anyone came when a character (Misty) left the gang and they all said goodbye to her.
    Enough rambling but suffice is to say that TV helped Alex to learn how to communicate and care about others, he’s come a long way and is currently studying computers and hopes to one day work “helping people by fixing their PCs”. Our journey is nowhere near it’s conclusion but it’s thanks to those programs that gave him the key to start opening the door.

  29. Bonnie says

    I am so happy for you, this story brought tears to my eyes I too experineced a similar struggle to find the spark in my son Michael. Pixar played a big role.:)

  30. says

    Ryan, my cousin works for Pixar. He worked on UP and Toy Story 3, among others. I just sent him the link to this post and encouraged him to read it.

    As I sit here bawling in happiness for your family…

  31. says

    Ryan {and Jackie},

    Sounds like our boys share a love of letters and spelling. That was/is L’s primary way of communication to us and I love it every time he leaves us a message. I make sure to take a picture too as I want to hold on to that memory. I am thankful for the language that has come from the spelling (and the PBS cartoon Word World).

    This is a beautiful post that just shows your love for Collin and how he has progressed. Having something that you can enjoy as a family is a true blessing. And way to go Collin on the reading skills!

  32. tara says

    Thanks for a great read! My son is 4 and his first link to us was through wonder pets. At first he would script the episodes but we started to realize that he was acting them out with a toy flyboat Imaginative play! It gave us so much hope!

  33. says

    Ryan,
    This is my first time on your blog, but I wanted to tell you thank you for writing this post. I’m an ABA/DTT therapist for children with autism and I have heard so many stories like yours. It’s heartbreaking to see the lights go out in a child’s eyes and the helplessness, guilt, and loss parents feel when they don’t know how to “fix it.” Stories like yours are the reason I do what I do each day.

  34. says

    Thank you so much for this story. There are bits and pieces that are all too familiar in our home. Our three old with Autism (he has a typical twin) definitely has a connection to pixar films as well. He still only has about 3 consistent words, but always knows when his favorite part (the jelly fish) of Finding Nemo or the scary part (the storm) of Up is coming up next. He cries of laughs or yells along with the character. He truly lights up. And in return, makes us light up. Our little, affectionate, sweet little man still has a long way to go to communication, but there are those moments of real stress and a bad day in Autism land is simply cured by putting on Toy Story. Oh and he loves Polar Express too. Something about that Tom Hanks…Again, Thank you, your story really touched my husband and I.

  35. says

    I’m crying right now like I just finished watching UP. I’d blame it on being pregnant, but that’s not even a factor when it comes the amazing explanation of sincere emotion in your post.

    You and Jackie are such amazing parents and people… I love virtually basking in your awesomeness! ;) Thank you SO much for sharing this amazing development in your life and family.

  36. Steven says

    Ryan,

    I found your website from a link on facebook from a friends’ post. As a father of 2, I was brought to tears and want to thank you for your posts and can’t wait to have my wife and friends read your blog. As I write this, my 2 1/2 year old son is in the family room working with an intensive toddler speech therapist. Our experience mirrors yours more than I could have imagined possible… At 18 months he changed, words…gone, reactions…gone.

    It wasn’t for another 5 months that he uttered any other words, and what word do I remember as one of his first returning words “the hat” This is his name for Woody. Our son didn’t find much interest in anything but Pixar movies. I did the same as you, I ran out and bought every Pixar movie I could get my hands on. The majority of his sounds/noises are somehow Pixar related, he roars like a “Monster” when he wants to watch Monsters, Inc and he will “Vroom” like a Car for Cars.

    I can’t tell you how excited I was the first time he showed an ‘appropriate’ emotional response to being afraid of Randall in Monsters, Inc as he hid behind the door when he appeared.

    Thank You for writing this blog! Thank you Pixar for bringing out of all of us a little bit of light, love, and laughter! And never let anyone tell You what’s best for Your child, You are the best advocate for Your child. As for me and my child, Pixar is welcome in our home anytime!

    • ryan says

      Thanks for your awesome words and your story Steven. Amazing how similar our experiences are. Thanks for taking the time to stop by!

  37. Dirk Van Gelder says

    What a great post, thank for sharing. I’m a parent of an autistic child and know the feeling of wondering what will “get through” to your child. For my son it was toy cars, for your son it was Pixar movies. It’s wonderful to hear the progress you’re making together and incredibly touching to hear how the movies have been a part of that. Send mail if you’re ever in the bay area and would like a tour of the studio.

    -Dirk Van Gelder ( Pixar employee since ’97)

  38. Brigid says

    Ryan,
    Beautiful post. This is my first time on your blog and I will definitely be back for more. I legitimately laughed out loud at “Running his head under the water tap in the kitchen gave him that classic drowned rat look.”

    Thank you for putting a smile on my face.

  39. Ryan Hatch says

    Ryan-

    Touching post. Glad to hear that Pixar has had that effect for your son. I guess a few props to to the late Steve Jobs.

    Hope all is well. It’s been _way_ too long since we’ve connected. We should do dinner sometime. I’d love to meet your family…like I say, it’s been too long…

    Cheers.

    Ryan Hatch

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Anyway, the article that made me think of writing another post here rather than a quick note in my placement blog last the last few have been was pretty strong. It was written in the form of a thank you letter to pixar on the blog of a father of a four year old autistic boy, and you can read it yourself here: http://www.ryandsullivan.com/dear-pixar-thank-you/ [...]

  2. [...] Ryan’s blog is technically not a specific type, but I found him while he was blogging about his journey of losing weight and getting healthy. He now blogs about, well, whatever is on his mind. And his voice is fantastic. this week he wrote, Dear Pixar, Thank You, where he talks about his son’s connection to these awesome movies, and how it broke through the walls that Autism can put up between us and our children. It really struck a chord with me, it’s so similar to the experience I had with my son, Christopher and our love of all things Disney. And judging from the comments he received, it also hit home with many autism parents. Go read it. [...]

  3. [...] you to my friend Ryan’s blog because he has something wonderful to share. I want you to read this post first and then I want you to read this one. Then come back here, [...]

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