In a new book, Rupert Isaacson tells the story of his autistic son Rowan, who had tantrums and felt isolated. Yesterday, Rupert revealed how being introduced to the bizarre rituals of traditional Mongolian shamans and a horse named Betsy helped Rowan express himself.
Here, in the final part of our moving series, his father wonders if his healing can really last. . .
The healer had one of those faces that imprint themselves on the mind, burning into the memory. Perhaps 60 years old, but strong and fit. Broken nose, small moustache, eyes set almost too wide apart below a much-lined forehead. Handsome in a beaten-up, ironic, faintly guarded-looking sort of way.
Heavy-lidded eyes. Smoking a roll-up and regarding us with an even, measuring gaze across the dimly lit tepee. He spoke, words I could not understand, his voice a little harsh, petering out into a cough.
This was Ghoste: the most powerful of Mongolia's shamans, a man we had travelled halfway across the world and then trekked for days by truck and horse to see. Would he be able to do anything for my troubled, autistic son?
Please God, all our efforts wouldn't have been for nothing. 'He says he'll help the boy,' said Tulga, our translator. 'But it will be expensive.' He paused, looking nervous. '$500.'
I was taken aback. 'U.S. dollars?' An uncomfortable laugh. 'Yes. I think it is a lot.' I looked at the shaman.
Before leaving Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator to travel into the country's interior, my wife Kristin and I had taken out that amount in local currency for contingencies. We hadn't used it. Now we were being asked for this amount exactly.
'Sure,' I said. 'Tell him, no problem.' Part of me was taken aback by the demand. (Though I found out later that the money was shared among several reindeer-herding families, and would be used to help all of them.)
But another part reasoned that we'd pay a therapist back at home, so why not a shaman? In this land he was considered a professional. Of course we'd pay.
The shaman reached for some dried herbs, which he placed on the hot plate of a glowing wood stove, scalding them so that their scent went smoking out into the gloom of the tepee.
Then he knelt in front of Rowan, who was sitting in Kristin's lap, and began to tap him gently with the scorched sprig. Rowan started to scream. A moment later he was quiet, giggling, trying to grab the herbs as the man tapped him about the head, neck and shoulders. 'Can you feel that?' said Kristin out of the side of her mouth.
'No.' I kept my voice low. 'What?' 'Pins and needles. All up my arms. Really strong. You can't feel anything?'
'No.' The shaman stopped tap-tapping with the herbs, turned to Tulga, and asked some questions. Tulga translated. 'He wants to hear Rowan's story - from you.'
So we told him. About Rowan's autism, trying to describe how it was to have a child who seemed not fully there, the neurological firestorms that would course through his body, the tantrums, the impossibility of toilet training even though he was nearly six, the feeling of being completely shut out of his life.
We told him about Betsy, Rowan's favourite horse back home, and the eerie connection between her and our son. How Betsy, of all the things we had tried, both orthodox and not, had seemed to affect him the most strongly.
The shaman said, through Tulga: 'Tonight I will make a journey. To America, where you come from. To work with Betsy, the horse, because she is his protector. Tonight I want you to notice how Rowan sleeps. And tomorrow tell me how he slept. Anything unusual, or anything at all. Then tomorrow night I will work on him. You should go now.'
And so we went, back out into the dark, Rowan on my shoulders, trying to feel our way back to where we had pitched our tents. The stars and moon were hidden by clouds.
And so we slept, at the top of the mountain, at the end of a long, long day, wondering what was to come.
Around dawn I heard Rowan scream. My heart sank. I unzipped his side of the tent. He was thrashing, unhappy, exhausted.
'Maybe he needs to pee,' I wondered, hoisting him out of the tent. I was right. But would he ever be able to go just like a normal child? Would we always have to unlock the cause of every tantrum by deduction in the face of screaming and thrashing? How long could my wife and I endure it? Something had to give.
I took him back to the tent. God, but it was cold up here, even though it was summer. I climbed in next to Kristin, our son between us, giving him extra warmth. Rowan slept longer than he ever had in his life, a record 14 hours.
The next evening the shaman's tent was as it had been before, full of people seated around the glow of a stove.
Reindeer-milk tea was served, and the shaman, Ghoste, asked how Rowan had slept. We told him - the first part of the night soundly, then a distressful wake-up at dawn, then back to sleep for the longest time we'd ever known. We also told him about a dream Kristin had had about Betsy.
Ghoste nodded as all this was translated, then got to his feet. The half-light cast by candles and the stove light made almost a dream figure of the shaman, who put out his arms for a heavy, beribboned coat that a woman now helped him don.
Ghoste next reached out for a headdress and mask, made of hawk's or eagle's feathers. As he placed it on his head, hiding his face, transforming himself into something not quite beast, not quite human, Rowan - who'd been sitting unusually quietly - said, 'Wow! Look! Look at that! A hawk. A hawk in the house!'
Tulga translated for the old man, and a quiet chuckle went around the circle. It died as Ghoste was handed his large, round drum and fur- clad drumstick. Suddenly, he seemed massive, the transformation complete. A solemn moment.
'I'm a baby elephant!' shouted Rowan, getting on all fours and marching up and down in front of where the shaman stood, impassive. 'UURWUUUURRR!' he trumpeted.
Ghoste, undisturbed, softly at first, then louder, began to tap on his drum.
Rowan stopped to listen. 'Look, he's drumming. The shaman is drumming!' He giggled. 'Baby elephant!' And around Ghoste's legs he scooted, trumpeting once more, grinning from ear to ear.
The drumming continued, growing louder, faster, Ghoste whirling suddenly, his feet instinctively avoiding Rowan the same way a horse instinctively avoids a fallen rider on the ground. I reached forward, grabbed Rowan and brought him into my lap. The drumming ceased.
Ghoste was singing, chanting. He barked an order. A hand - it was hard to see whose in the gloom - offered him a small, shallow bowl. He reached down and handed it towards Rowan. I could see it was filled with reindeer milk.
'Good bloody luck,' I thought as Rowan, quiet in my arms till that point, flinched away and threw out an arm, which caught the bowl and sent it flying.
But as if expecting this, the feathered, masked figure that was Ghoste deftly flicked out the arm that held the drum, caught the bowl on the drum's skin surface, and tossed it back on to the ground at our feet.
Ghoste stooped, peering at it, then picked it up, handed it back to a woman in the gloom and resumed his dance. He stopped suddenly, put down his drum, doffed his headdress, leaned down and offered it to Rowan. Delighted, Rowan reached out, took it, put it on his own head, then reached back and put it on mine.
And with that the ritual was over. We didn't realise it at first. But a moment or two after Ghoste had taken the headdress back, he shrugged off the shaman's coat and headdress, sat down and reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He said something to the circle of faces and lit up.
'He says it's done,' said Tulga. I looked at Rowan, rolling happily around on the rug at my feet. We'd been in the tepee 20 minutes. That was it? Kristin and I looked at each other. Ghoste was speaking again.
'There are some things you should know before you head back,' translated Tulga. 'Tomorrow he will tell you what they are.' One final visit, then, and it was all over. It seemed so sudden somehow, so truncated. So low-key.
'First, Rowan must have these,' said Ghoste the next day, giving me three small stones. 'Take these home and add four from your own place and put them under his pillow at night.'
'OK,' I took the stones and secreted them in a pocket of my coat. 'Any significance to the number seven?'
We didn't get an answer. Instead, Ghoste said: 'Every year from now until he is nine, you have to do at least one good ritual like this. It doesn't matter where, but with strong shamans.'
'I see.' Tulga nodded as Ghoste spoke again, giving more instructions, speaking of his belief that Rowan would one day become a shaman, too.
'And now he says we should go,' said Tulga, getting to his feet. 'We should move over to the other side of the pass as soon as we can. We must pack up - he'll come soon and wish us goodbye.'
'All right. Please tell him thank you from us.'
'Yes,' agreed Kristin; 'please tell him that.'
As we were halfway out the door, Ghoste said something more. 'He says . . .' Tulga looked nervous. 'He says that yes, Rowan will be getting gradually less and less autistic till he's nine. After that you, Rupert, will take over from Betsy as his main protector.'
'What does that mean exactly?' I interrupted.
Tulga said: 'I don't quite know. I'm sorry. But he also says the bad behaviours, the stuff that drives you crazy, you know. . .'
He reddened like a schoolboy, and continued, 'The toilet problems, the tantrums. Those will stop now.' 'Now?' I asked. 'Yes,' he replied.
'Now, like today now?' Tulga relayed the question, Ghoste nodded. 'Now. From today. Yes.'
Kristin and I looked at each other utterly speechless, simply not knowing what to say.
Back at the camp a short time later Rowan started to get upset because I wanted him to put on an extra coat. Exasperated, I threw a piece of bread in his direction and suddenly he stopped, the whine dying on his lips.
'I'm sorry,' he said. He'd never, <cite>ever </cite>said that to me before. And not 30 hours after Ghoste had said it would happen, Rowan took himself to the toilet for the first time ever.
'Oh my God!' said Kristin. 'I can't believe it!' I yelled. 'It's like watching England win the World Cup!' 'Incredible,' I heard Tulga muttering quietly to himself.
But there was one last test to endure.
'We're going to London tomorrow,' I told Rowan, although he knew it well enough - and that we would, as we had on the way out to Mongolia, be stopping off to visit my parents, his grandparents.
As we stood in the queue for check-in, Rowan and Tulga's six-year-old son Tomoo, the first friend my son had ever made, perched together on the luggage cart like two brothers.
When it was was time to go, they embraced and then, with the almost animal way children have of just accepting things, they let each other go.
As the plane lifted over the mountains, the sheer vast emptiness of this land that had given us so much, I caught my wife's eye. We reached out for each other's hands as the plane banked, climbed and pointed its nose to the west: home.
In London Rowan began to slip almost immediately into his obsessive behaviours. Several big tantrums followed.
On the third day in the city, while we were walking up the busy main road close to my parents' house, Rowan began flapping his arms and babbling just like he used to. Regressing. As I stood there on the street, watching him flap and shake his head as the traffic thundered past, I felt as if my heart would break.
That evening Kristin and I took Rowan on the train from my parents' house to Hampstead Heath, that wonderful wilderness in North London.
Perhaps, I thought, clutching at straws, if I got him back into nature, the regression might stop. I watched him looking out of the window of the train at the passing rooftops and prayed that all he had accomplished would not be for nothing.
Under the great spreading oaks, I watched Rowan trot ahead of me, chasing the handsome black-and-white magpies that hopped along the path before him, giggling when a grey squirrel darted up a tree to chatter at him from a branch. Suddenly, my son came running back to me with a huge grin on his face: 'Time for a tickle!'
Relieved that he was speaking lucidly again, I asked, 'A tiny little mouse tickle, or . . .' 'A great big elephant buffalo rhino blue whale tickle!' he interrupted, and with a great roar of laughter he ran head first into my stomach, squealing with frenzied delight as I tickled his ribs, tousled his hair, and did my best to keep my fear at bay.
We walked long into the evening, looking at birds, watching the sun set over the great London basin. Here in nature, he was calm again.
But for how long, I wondered. How long?
For good, it turned out. That last episode of tantrums in London, a week after coming down the mountain from Ghoste's summer camp in the mountain, was the last truly dysfunctional behaviour we ever saw.
We had returned home with a completely different child.
By Rowan's sixth birthday, a few short months after returning from Mongolia, he had so many friends that we had to throw a proper party - his first ever birthday party - for a whole gaggle of children.
Kristin and I were able to reclaim our romantic life. With the arrival of play dates in Rowan's life came the arrival of babysitters in ours, which enabled us to take evenings out together, on actual dates.
The revelation of finding myself sitting across a restaurant table from my beautiful wife again, looking into her dark brown eyes - so dark as to be almost black, with those little lights dancing in their centre - was just that: a revelation. It had been so long.
No longer do we have to think 100 per cent about Rowan and his autism. We have time to think about us - one of the gifts of Rowan's recovery. Is recovery too strong a word? Perhaps healing is better. Healing rather than cure.
Rowan is eight now, and still autistic - his essence, his many talents, are all tied up with it. He has been healed of the terrible dysfunctions that afflicted him - his physical and emotional incontinence, his neurological meltdowns, his anxiety and hyperactivity. But he has not been cured.
Nor would I want him to be. To 'cure' him, in terms of trying to tear out the autism, now seems completely wrong.
Why can't he move between the worlds, with a foot in both, as many, many people do? Think of all the immigrants the globe over, living with one foot in their home language and culture, the other in their new country.
Can Rowan keep learning the skills necessary to swim in our world while retaining the magic of his own? It's a dream, but one I firmly believe can come true.