LAS VEGAS — Last year, at the age of 3, Sawyer Dunlap could say only a few words. He was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that often affects speech and can impair motor skills, memory and other cognitive abilities for life.
Sawyer’s mother, Natasha Dunlap, has lived with it her whole life and could not speak until she was 6. For Sawyer’s first four years, the only thing he would say is “bah.”
That began to change earlier this year, after his family saw the hit movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” as part of a family movie night.
“The first time he saw (the character) Groot, he became fascinated,” said Josh Dunlap, Sawyer’s father.
Groot is a tree-like superhero voiced in the film by Vin Diesel; mostly, he says only the words “I am Groot,” but with different inflections in different movie scenes. Dunlap took to the character, his father says.
“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 behavior changed, and his communication with others did as well.”
Warren Fried, the director of Dyspraxia Foundation USA, said hearing a character repeat the same expression can open up one’s confidence.
“We hear things repetitively, it sticks into our memory so we can communicate it out,” said Fried, who also has dyspraxia. “Everything has to be in a pattern.”
Dyspraxia affects as much as 10% of the population, he said.
“Developmental dyspraxia impacts additional motor skills such as ocular, short-term memory issues, judgment, processing and function delays, sensory concerns and language,” he said. “With the condition comes many (other) disorders, which can be more debilitating as dyspraxia impacts neuron development.”
Developmental pediatrician Martine Sacks, from the Providence Neurodevelopmental Center for Children in Oregon, pointed out that Groot is a particularly helpful character.
” ‘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.”
Sacks said the positive feedback from parents and teachers encourages them to speak more.
Sawyer, now 4, is more eager to speak in prekindergarten speech class.
“His teachers have done an amazing job,” Josh Dunlap said. “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.”
When Dunlap saw “Guardians” director James Gunn post on Facebook about the movie’s first anniversary, he said he just had to tell the director about it, so he posted a comment below the post.
Gunn shared it with his Facebook fans, and now a larger audience knows how Groot helped Sawyer and how similar stories may help other children struggling with dyspraxia.
Gunn responded: “I love making movies because of stories like this. Thank you.”