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Dad says 'Guardians of the Galaxy' character helped son overcome speech problem

Until a year ago, Sawyer could only say three words, but then he watched "Guardians of the Galaxy" and his vocabulary increased by one word — Groot.
/ Source: TODAY

For years, Sawyer Dunlap struggled to talk. He developed his own form of sign language, which his parents understood, and often said “bah” to indicate what he wanted. But he fought to form words. Sawyer, now 4, lives with dyspraxia, a neurological condition that causes motor and speech problems.

Until a year ago, Sawyer could only say three words, but then he watched “Guardians of the Galaxy” and his vocabulary increased by one word — Groot.

“When Groot came out, he kept saying ‘I am Groot,' and if he saw a tree ... he would say Groot,” said Natasha Dunlap, Sawyer’s mother, who also has dyspraxia.

Sawyer Dunlap
Natasha Dunlap

Soon the Dunlaps noticed Sawyer said "Groot" with different inflections much like the character; he even started saying "bah" using different tones to project various meaning. He recently started speech therapy and he is now stringing words together.

“He has to think about it. He has to go slow,” said Dunlap.

The Dunlaps credited his progress to Sawyer’s connection to Groot.

“I think he related a lot to the character because [Groot] couldn't really talk,” said Dunlap.

Her husband, Josh, felt so grateful for Groot and “Guardians of the Galaxy” that about a month ago he sent a private message on Facebook to director James Gunn. Josh thought he’d never hear anything back from Gunn. On Wednesday, Gunn did more than just send a message; he posted the family's story for the world to see with a simple message. “I love making movies because of stories like this. Thank you.”

“It was amazing,” said Dunlap. “When we woke up, it was at 5,000 likes and all these comments ... people really related [to it] and that was really cool to see.”

Gunn said that stories like these inspire him.

“I’m incredibly touched by stories from folks like [Josh] and his family. In the end I feel like I’ve done my job as a filmmaker if people feel closer to each other walking out of the theater than they do walking in,” he wrote in a statement to TODAY.

Sawyer Dunlap's family
Natasha Dunlap

“‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is about a group of outcasts, FOR outcasts, who come together despite their differences to form a family. Anything about the story and the characters that helps to increase the bonds between actual family members is awesome.”

While the Dunlaps feel excited by the attention, Natasha Dunlap feels particularly heartened that the story sheds light on dyspraxia.

“I’m not usually one for the spotlight but I am standing [it] just for the awareness,” she said.

Dyspraxia is a life-long developmental coordination disorder attributed to misfiring neurons that affects as much as 10 percent of the population, said Warren Fried, executive director of Dyspraxia USA, who also has it. The disorder can be genetic, a fact that the Dunlaps recently learned.

Sawyer Dunlap
Natasha Dunlap

Dyspraxia manifests differently in each person, but Fried understands why hearing the same word or phrase — Groot or I am Groot—would help a child with dyspraxia learn to talk.

“We have to hear things a variety of ways in order to interpret what it really means. And, we practice over and over to convert it into long-term memory,” he said.

Jackie Kearns, a speech therapist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation, agrees that repetition is key.

“The more repetition they can get, the quicker [language] can become automatic,” she said.