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A family trip to Mongolia, ancient birthplace of both
shamanism and horses, has worked a profound healing
magic for "The Horse Boy". Story by Charlotte Francis.
In April 2004, Rupert Isaacson and his
wife Kristin Neff discovered that their
two and a half year old son, Rowan, was
autistic. They now had a special needs child
and had to navigate their way through a
sea of therapies and conflicting schools of
thought. From applied behavioural analysis
(ABA) to detoxifying mixtures and anti-viral
drugs, nothing seemed to break through
Rowan's neurological no-man's land of
emotional and physical incontinence,
violent tantrums, limited linguistic skills
and an inability to make friends.
Nothing, that is, apart from a horse
called Betsy and a group of traditional
healers from indigenous communities.
As a human rights activist and journalist,
Texas-based Rupert had helped to bring
six Kalahari bushmen over to the US to
attend a convention of traditional healers.
He noticed that Rowan responded
positively to the laying on of hands by
some of the bushmen and other healers
with many of them saying, "He's one of us."
It was this observation, coupled with
Rowan's extraordinarily close relationship
with a neighbour's horse, Betsy, that
sparked Rupert's dream of embarking on
a family trip to Mongolia, the birthplace
of both horses and shamanism.
"I realised that Rowan's autism could
be the gateway to the greatest adventure
of them all," explains Rupert when we meet
at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, where
he is promoting his book, The Horse Boy.
It took two years to persuade Kristin to
get behind his dream. Not sharing Rupert's
love of horses, she was also reluctant to add
to the stresses of caring for an autistic child.
Clearly a deeply intuitive person
-- he knew, for example, within one day of
meeting Kristin that she was to be his wife
-- Rupert quietly nurtured his plan. "Every
fibre of my being was saying, 'Do this.' Even
if it means people laugh at you."
Describing himself as a healthy sceptic
and certainly not a born again shaman,
Rupert was simply open to finding a way
for his son to lead the most happy and
productive life possible.
But his holistic approach to blending
contemporary therapies with traditional
spiritual healing has attracted criticism from
some of the more hardline therapists, who
mistakenly think he has jettisoned Western
approaches. It was this level of scepticism
that prompted him to take friend and
volunteer cameraman Michel, and Michel's
friend Julian, on the trip so they could
document the changes.
Rupert points out that our culture
tends toward polarised attitudes: "Either
I'm a total New Age hippie or I'm totally
rational. Most of us make rational and
non-rational decisions all the time as a
matter of survival."
Interestingly, some speech therapists
had given up on Rowan just as his speech
was beginning to improve as he bonded
with Betsy. As an ex-professional horse
trainer, Rupert argues the case for a more
flexible model of education and compares
it to training a horse. You start with the
classic pyramid and then refine it to fit the
Others challenged their sense of
adventure. "People said Mongolia must
have been dangerous. But when you're
the parent of an autistic child, life is just flat
out stressful anyway. Taking your child to
a therapy appointment along the freeway
is also dangerous."
As we continue our conversation,
it strikes me that not only is this a story
about listening to your intuition and
following your dreams, but also about
having the courage to be authentic and to
support the individuality of other people
and other cultures.
Through his human rights work
in Africa, Rupert has come to know an elderly
bushman healer, Besa. Their communication
is largely non-verbal (Besa is most likely
autistic himself) and based on an energetic
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