Film: The Horse Boy (2009).
By Pamela Douglas Webster
Ed. Note: See Pam’s Companion article on the healing powers of animals at Something Wagging This Way Comes.
How do you heal an autistic child?
How do you comfort a child whose brain causes him to have several tantrums a day? How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t speak? And how do you cope, day after day, with a five-year old who refuses to use a toilet?
Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, researched every option for treating their son Rowan’s autism. Nothing helped.
But one day Rowan, showed how they might connect with him. The boy ran onto a neighbor’s property toward the owner’s mare, Betsy. Isaacson, a former horse trainer, saw Betsy’s gentle way with the boy. He lifted his son on the horse’s back. And for the first time, Rowan spoke.
With this clue, Isaacson started thinking about new ways to approach his son’s condition. Could horses be part of the healing? And could shamanism bring new answers? He settled on a complex undertaking that involved traveling to Mongolia, the world’s oldest horse culture, to ask for healing from its shamans.
The Horse Boy, follows the family across the world and over the steppes, interspersed with autism experts, including Simon Baron-Cohen and Temple Grandin, explaining the current state of knowledge about this challenging condition. The “talking heads” provide interesting commentary and don’t bog the story down. But the real draw of the film is the time spent in Mongolia.
Outside Ulaanbaatar, the family underwent several shamanic rituals before traveling by van for several days to connect to their horse riding guides.
The scenery is stunning. And Mongolia’s forbidding beauty is an effective backdrop for the questioning and self-doubt Rupert feels when he asks himself if he really has his son’s best interests at heart.
Their trip culminated with a slogging horseback ride over the mountains to meet Ghoste, the powerful shaman of the reindeer people, or Dukha. As the shaman promised, Rowan’s functioning improved within one day.
Kristin, the rationalist, didn’t know if Rowan’s improvement was caused by the shamans’ spiritual healing or by the intention of healing that they all carried with them. Rupert, as the one who instigated the trip, had witnessed profound shamanic healing before. He appeared more comfortable with a spiritual explanation for his son’s improvement.
But as the parents saw their son doing things they never expected him to do (pottying by himself, playing with groups of children), I don’t think they cared if the change was spirit-led or had a more rational explanation.
Some experts in the autism spectrum suggest that autistic people experience the world differently from neurotypical people and that it is important for our society to find ways to embrace that. As an anthropologist in the film stated, European cultures are one of the few that institutionalize the profoundly autistic.
Perhaps the spiritual and the animal worlds can help us integrate the unique, autistic vision into our society. Just like it helped Rowan Isaacson connect in new ways.
Many years ago, I worked in a large religious congregation. One young boy there was profoundly autistic.
He never made eye contact. He didn’t interact with other children. He communicated by pointing to pictures in a book to show what he wanted.
I learned a lot about autism (including that there’s much about it that no one knows) from his mother who was a dedicated, loving, and passionate advocate for her son.
I was surprised when this mom brought a rambunctious adolescent dog home from the local shelter. What was she thinking? She had a demanding career, one child with serious neurologic issues, and two neurotypical children. How could she also handle an untrained, high-energy dog?
But she knew something I did not.
And while their dog never became a model canine citizen walking nicely on leash or doing tricks at home, he brought a wonderful gift to that family. Everyone bonded with him in different ways. And most importantly, the autistic boy gained a loving canine presence who always appreciated the affection showered on him even if it came in “words” humans had trouble understanding.
Adopting a crazy, young dog isn’t the easiest way for a family to try to reach the autistic mind. Perhaps it’s easier than riding horseback across Mongolia. But whether in North America or Asia, animals connect us to a way of being outside ourselves. And that’s healing for anyone.
Disclosure: I’ve illustrated this post with photos from Flickr used under a Creative Commons license. Click on the pictures to learn more about the photographers and the images. The DVD illustration at the top and titles are links to allow you to buy them at Amazon. Although it won’t cost you any more, we will get a small commission to help cover our costs.
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