Besides inspiring kids to become their own superheroes or having fictional idols, Marvel’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ has recently helped Sawyer Dunlap, a 4-year-old boy, overcome his speech impediment.
Sawyer has dyspraxia, which is a neurological disorder that affects the motor functions for proper speech. Having this issue for years, he has even resorted to creating his own sign language so his parents could understand what he wanted. For example, when he said ‘bah’, it meant he needed something.
It is a developmental coordination disorder that one has for life and occurs when neurons transmit signals in a disorderly manner. Close to 10 percent of the population are affected by it and it can also be genetically passed on, said the executive director of Dyspraxia USA, said Warren Fried, who also suffers from it.
However, dyspraxia affects different people in different ways, likewise about a year back, Sawyer only had three words in his vocabulary, but after watching ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, he added one more to it, which was ‘Groot’. So, the repetition of something like ‘Groot’ or ‘I am Groot’, can help a child with the disorder learn to speak better.
As a little background, the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy’ was basically about a bunch of outcasts and misfits who work together despite their differences and become a family. This made it a movie for fellow outcasts and for those that know that family goes beyond what you’re given but can also be what you create with others in life.1
Among that group, is the character Groot, who is a tree that walks, fights and is shown to be like a human, in the movie, but the only thing he ever says is: ‘I am Groot’, with expressive tones depending on the situation he responds to, but says nothing else.
Sawyer’s mother, Natasha Dunlap, who also suffered from dyspraxia, said that ever since he watched the movie, he would always say Groot when he saw a tree or keep repeating the phrase, ‘I am Groot’.
Sawyer must have seen ‘Groot’ as a kindred spirit and hence taken it in himself to repeat the same thing. Soon enough Sawyer also started to say ‘Groot’ with different expressive tones, just like the character did, i.e. saying ‘Groot’ with a happy tone or sad tone or angry tone etc.
Likewise, he also applied those different tones to the other three words in his vocabulary, to express different meanings.
To bolster this, he started doing some speech therapy and can now put words together and speak sentences, although he needs to think before doing so.
Josh Dunlap, Sawyer’s father said he is very grateful to ‘Groot’ and the movie and showed his gratitude by sending a private message on Facebook to the director of the movie, James Gunn. Not really expecting to hear back from a big-shot Hollywood director, he was surprised when James replied saying: “I love making movies because of stories like this. Thank you” and he even posted Sawyer’s story for the world to see. The story garnered more than 5,000 likes, with supportive comments about how cool it was.
Josh’s message basically told James about Sawyer’s condition, how he connected with the character ‘Groot’, began to mimic him and thanked him for creating a story and using characters that went beyond fiction and helped a four-year-old relate to someone with a similar language barrier.
For every creative person such as directors, such stories keep them going and inspire them, as expressed by James Gunn. He explained, that he was touched by Sawyer’s story and those like it, making his job feel more worthwhile as a filmmaker and more connected to those that walk out of that theater more than when they walked in.
Sawyer’s mother was glad it helped spread awareness about dyspraxia, and he has now learnt to repeat words and phrases in different ways, interpreting what it means and practicing it till it gets stored in his long-term memory. Something similar to learning a new language, repetition being pivotal to making word usage reflexes more automatic.
Overall, fictional tales be it through books, radio or movies, have always had an informative, entertaining or therapeutic effect. But Groot although being an outcast and a side-character, has captured the hearts of many viewers and become a real-life super-hero to Sawyer, on a deeper level than the average superhero. So, Avengers, please take note.