Sawyer Dunlap could only speak a few words last year. Diagnosed with a neurological disorder called ‘dyspraxia’ which can permanently affect speech, motor skills, memory, and other cognitive abilities, the four year old’s road to recovery began when he saw the character ‘Groot’ in the hit film ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘.
His mother, Natasha Dunlap, had lived with the disorder her entire life and didn’t end up speaking until she was six years old. This seemed like it would be the case for Sawyer as well, as he could only say the word “bah” for his first four years, until he went out on a movie night with his family.
“The first time he saw [the character] Groot, he became fascinated,” said Josh Dunlap, Sawyer’s father. “Something clicked inside him and he connected with him on a level I haven’t seen. “He would start mimicking Groot by changing the way he would say ‘bah.’ Groot became his voice — he was able to change ‘bah’ to ‘Groot.’ His behaviour changed, and his communication with others did as well.”
For those unaware, Groot is a tree-like character who can only utter the phrase “I am Groot”, but can mean different things with it based on his inflection. Vin Diesel, the actor who supplied his voice for the character, recorded the phrase over a thousand different times with varying tones, emphasis, and even in different languages.
Warren Fried, the director of Dyspraxia Foundation USA, explained that hearing a character repeat the same expression can help boost the confidence of someone with the condition.
“We hear things repetitively, it sticks into our memory so we can communicate it out. Everything has to be in a pattern.” Dyspraxia affects as much as 10% of the population, said Fried, who also has the condition. “Developmental dyspraxia impacts additional motor skills such as ocular, short-term memory issues, judgment, processing and function delays, sensory concerns and language. With the condition comes many (other) disorders, which can be more debilitating as dyspraxia impacts neuron development.”
Martine Sacks, a developmental paediatrician from the Providence Neurodevelopmental Center for children in Oregon, also expressed how Groot is a helpful character for Sawyer.
“‘I am Groot’: Those are very easy sounds to make, it’s mostly vowels,” she said. “The ‘G’ and ‘T’ are easy. There’s this character who always says the same thing, but he uses different inflection, and people understand him. It’s very empowering.”
Sawyer has been making tremendous progress ever since, and thanks to consistent positive feedback from his parents and teachers, he has become more eager to speak in pre-kindergarten speech class.
“His teachers have done an amazing job,” said Mr. Dunlap. “They are focusing on his speech and muscle performance; they focus on word recognition and speech and motor skills. His teachers last year [say he improved by] leaps and bounds, they even attributed the change (to) Groot.”
The amazing story of Sawyers development was first made public when the director of the film, James Gunn, shared a comment Josh Dunlap made on his post. Gunn made a post on Facebook regarding the movie’s first anniversary, which Dunlap later saw and decided he had to tell the director about the impact the movie has had on his family’s life. His comment quickly gained attention and then Gunn shared it, potentially helping other children struggling with the disorder.