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.