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ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Owen Suskind’s world came to a halt in 1993. The toddler stopped talking, showing affection and engaging in the world around him.

His parents Ron and Cornelia Suskind took him to a doctor and heard a shattering diagnosis: regressive autism.

“We just froze,” Ron Suskind told Nightline. “The doctor started to explain, ‘OK, this is going to change your life. He may never get his speech back. Many of the kids don’t.’”

Ron Suskind, an award-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, said that around this time his son “started to vanish.”

“He couldn’t look at you,” Ron said. “He walked around like someone with their eyes closed.”

At age 4, Owen’s language became gibberish and his frustration grew, but he found comfort in animated movies. Then one day, there was a breakthrough. Ron said Owen had been watching “The Little Mermaid” and started saying what sounded like, “Jucervus, Jucervus.”

“Cornelia thought he wanted more juice,” Ron Suskind said. “So she gives him the juice. He knocks the cup over."

That's when Ron said they realized he was referring to the movie. "He rewinds it the second time. Then the third time, and Cornelia [says], ‘It’s not juice.’”

Owen was fixated on a pivotal scene in the movie when Ursula the sea witch says to Ariel, “Just your voice.”

“I grab Owen and say, ‘Just your voice!’ and he looks at me for the first time in a year and says, ‘Jucervus,’” Ron said. “Pandemonium broke out in the bedroom.’”

The family discovered Owen had memorized every line from every Disney movie and eventually realized that by speaking dialogue in those characters’ voices, they could communicate with their son. Ron first started talking to his son with an Iago puppet, the parrot from the movie, “Aladdin.”

The Suskinds spent the next several years immersing themselves in Owen’s world. Now 20 years later, Owen and his family are sharing their hard-won journey in a new documentary, “Life, Animated,” the same title of Ron Suskind’s 2014 book about their experience. "Life, Animated" is opening in theaters on Friday.

“We were living a kind of double life,” Ron said. “I'm interviewing presidents, and at night, we're animated characters.”

For Owen, watching those movies made him feel like he was in a better, safe place.

“The world was so noisy coming at him, overwhelming him,” Ron added. “The movies were the one thing that didn’t change.”

Dr. Rebecca Landa has spent 20 years working with children who have autism and said it’s important to pay close attention to what the child is trying to express. She said one of the things that can happen with these animated movies is that children will learn parts of the script.

“They can't put together the words from scratch to express their idea," she said. "So they’re borrowing from the movie."

Beyond the storylines, Owen, now 25 years old, said he feels a kinship with certain animated characters.

“The sidekicks,” he said. “They're so fun-loving and entertaining and also help the heroes fulfill their destiny.”

In fact, Owen compares people in his life to sidekicks from Disney movies. He said he sees his father as Merlin from “The Sword and the Stone” and his mother as Mrs. Potts from “The Beauty and the Beast.” The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of ABC News.

Owen is just one of many with autism who are drawn to animated stories. Colleen Sottilare said her 22-year-old son Jonathan finds great comfort in these movies, especially “Toy Story.”

“His mood changes if it comes on, he’ll just stop and watch it, and calm down,” Sottilare said. “So I think it really has just a really calming influence on him.”

The animation connection has offered Owen a way to make friends. He even started a Disney club at his school, where he said they discuss the films and how they relate to their lives.

“They start to talk and they're speaking the language of Disney to each other,” his father Ron said. “It's like magic.”

Embracing their son’s complex world led Ron and Cornelia Suskind to see the world differently.

“We saw there are many affinities,” Ron said. “The kids who are Harry Potter kids and Star Wars kids -- they use these passions as code breakers to crack the codes of themselves, their place in the world, their identity.”

It’s a lesson for parents of children with autism who worry that their kids are too obsessed with certain subjects, Landa said, and that can be a good thing.

“If you take those interests but you just wiggle a little further away from them, slowly but surely, you can bring in new experiences for children,” she said.

One of those new experiences is real-life interaction with an animated character. On a recent trip to New York City, Owen got to meet Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the evil villain Jafar in the animated movie, “Aladdin,” and now plays the character in the Broadway show version. At the New York premiere of “Life, Animated,” Owen had a sing-a-long with award-winning composer Alan Menken, who wrote many of his favorite Disney movie tunes.

Today, Owen is working and living on his own.

“He changed, but he didn't become less," Ron Suskind said. "We just needed to learn who he was.”

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

The Gompf Family(TAMPA, Fla.) -- A Florida family has posted a billboard to draw attention to the dangers of the "brain-eating" amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, for people swimming in local lakes, ponds and streams.

The Gompf family posted a billboard in Tampa in honor of their son, Phillip Gompf, who died from meningitis caused by Naegleria fowleri in 2009. It's part of a campaign on water safety the family started in 2014.

"We can't bring back our child. Protect yours, with nose clips," the billboard reads next to a family picture with Phillip missing.

The boy's mother, Dr. Sandra Gompf, said in a video on the family's website that he contracted the infection after he went swimming in a lake. His first symptom was a headache that appeared five days later, the following morning Phillip's parents had difficulty waking him up.

They rushed him to the pediatric ER.

"He was found pretty quickly to have severe meningitis sand three days later he was gone," Gompf said in a video posted on the website to draw attention to the issue.

Both of Phillip's parents are doctors who specialize in serious infections. They are now posting the billboard and starting an online campaign to help protect other children.

"It's 99 percent fatal, but it's 100 percent preventable," Gompf says in a video. "You just need to keep water out of the nose."

There are zero to eight infections in this country from parasitic amoebas each year, and nearly all are fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises people to take steps to avoid getting water up their nose in freshwater lakes and streams. Swimmers can keep their head above water, use a nose clip or hold their nose shut when underwater.

"If I could tell you one thing that Phillip would want you to know is to enjoy nature but to remember that natural bodies of water are alive," she said.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Researchers are learning more about the Zika virus and how it affects the development of infants in utero -- and what they're learning is painting a grim portrait of the destructive nature of the infection for the fetus.

Two studies published Wednesday in the medical journal The Lancet shed new light on the effects of the virus.

In one study, researchers from multiple institutions, including the Brazilian Ministry of Health, examined children who had been born to mothers with suspected Zika virus infections. The virus has been found to cause microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head. However, researchers found of the approximately 1,500 births they studied, about 20 percent of the babies born with Zika virus had normal head circumferences. This means these infants may have developmental delays or other defects even though they do not have microcephaly.

The other study published by researchers from multiple institutions, including the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examined the ways the virus affects brain tissue. They looked at brains of three infants who died after being born with Zika-related microcephaly and also at fetal tissue from two pregnancies that ended in miscarriage related to Zika infection.

By looking at the tissue, researchers found evidence of body deformities, cell death and abnormal calcium deposits in brain tissue related to the viral infection.

The researchers hope to be able to better understand how the virus attacks the developing brain through these studies.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News that the study findings show how much researchers are playing catch-up with this disease.

"I’m afraid the more we learn the nastier the Zika virus is," Schaffner said. "It’s quite evident that the Zika virus, if it gets into a pregnant woman, can get into the placenta and into the baby and it gets right into the brain cells."

Schaffner said other birth defects, including those that affect sight and hearing, often appear if brain development is affected in utero.

"Some of the babies will have blindness and hearing defects," if their brain development is impacted, Schaffner explained. "Some of the babies who appear normal at birth on follow-up can be found tragically later to have limitations of brain function, vision and hearing."

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

iStock/ThinkstockBy DR. JENNIFER ASHTON, ABC News Senior Medical Contributor

When you send your child off to college, you expect them to get a good education and life experience -- not the mumps.

The contagious illness is the result of a virus that causes painful swelling of the salivary glands. College students are particularly at risk. The mumps virus is spread through saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose or throat.

Although most people are vaccinated against mumps at a young age, the vaccine does not provide full protection. Two doses of the vaccine are approximately 88 percent effective in preventing mumps and one dose is 78 percent effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Symptoms of the virus include fever, tiredness, muscle aches and swollen salivary glands. In rare cases, severe complications, including meningitis or inflammation of the ovaries or testicles, can occur.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

iStock/Thinkstock(CHICAGO) — They might be pretty to look at, but the handheld fireworks known as sparklers people love on the 4th of July can be dangerous.

The Chicago Tribune reports that sparklers accounted for more than 12 percent of fireworks injuries from June 23 to July 20, 2015, based on information from the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal's Division of Fire Prevention.

Of the 7,000 fireworks-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms, sparklers accounted for an estimated 19 percent from June 20 to July 20, 2014.  But those numbers skyrocket when it comes to kids: the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics for children under five, sparklers accounted for 61 percent of the total estimated injuries.

MaryLynn Jacobs, vice president of operations at ATI Physical Therapy, said people are naïve about the dangers of sparklers, which burn at around 2,000 degrees -- that's hot enough to melt some metals.

Jacobs doesn't recommend having fireworks at home for safety reasons. "Being a mother of three, I would just ask [people] please to watch from afar. Let's go to a fireworks display.”

Jacobs says large bubble wands and pinwheels that aren’t fireworks are good substitutes for children.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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