Rupert Isaacson talks to Theo Merz about his ongoing and extraordinary quest to help his autistic child.
Most parents would be delighted to have a child who doesn’t like playing practical jokes. But when his son Rowan fooled him into thinking a toy rubber squid was a chicken nugget, it was one of the most significant – and happy – moments of Rupert Isaacson’s life.
Rowan is severely autistic, and specialists feared he would never be able to communicate properly. Now, thanks in part to a series of extraordinary journeys and experiences, Rowan is “healed” enough to write and present his own wildlife documentary, and look forward to a career.
The practical jokes were the result of an encounter with Harold, an Aboriginal healer in the Australian rainforest.
“When you’re two, you think that everybody can see what you see,” says Isaacson. “Realising that’s not true is a milestone a lot of autistic people get to very late, in adolescence, or not at all. It’s called theory of mind, and it kicked in after two days in Australia. Playing practical jokes is a sign you understand this because it depends on you knowing something the other person doesn’t.”
The trip to Queensland was one of three expeditions the family undertook to meet traditional healers in remote corners of the world. They chanted with bushmen in Africa and took part in ancient ceremonies with Navajo Indians in the Arizona desert.
Their adventures, which showed Isaacson how nature, movement and animals could open new ways of communicating with autistic children, are the subject of his new book The Long Ride Home, published this week. It’s the follow-up to The Horse Boy, which came out in 2009. The book was translated into 30 languages and reportedly earned the former travel journalist an advance of more than £500,000. That book told how Rowan’s relationship with horses seemed to ease the symptoms of his autism.
When Rowan was first diagnosed, Isaacson thought his son might always be prone to violent tantrums and “toilet accidents” and would never be able to cope with a change in routine. He was desperate to help him in any way he could. He withdrew his four-year-old son from his local school, which had a windowless room and little support for special needs children, to teach him from home.
Encounters with horses seemed to unlock something in Rowan, offering hope of healing – although there is no cure for autism. After a month-long journey across Mongolia in search of shamans, the traditional medicine men of the steppe, Rowan returned calmer and more communicative – as a result of the shaman ceremonies, perhaps, or the contact with horses.
Maybe Isaacson was more open to alternative theories because of his background. He was born in England to parents from southern Africa – and now lives in rural Texas with his wife, Kristin, a psychology professor.
Isaacson acknowledges that many in the West will be uncomfortable with the idea of people who claim to act as intermediaries between the human and the spirit worlds, but he says it was “not a big leap of cognition or culture” for him.