Way back before the horse boy was a book or film, when it was just us as a family, maxing out our credit cards to buy the tickets to go to Mongolia on a wish and prayer to go see a healer, and me as a writer and journalist, thinking that we should chronicle the journey if only to show that a diagnosis of autism need not preclude a family used to adventure
(I come from an African family where adventures in wild places are part of the culture), from living that kind of life - when everyone was telling us that it was all over, that this kind of life was impossible...way back then, I remember thinking well, if there had been a story out there when wed gotten the diagnosis, maybe I might have despaired a little less. And even - I thought - if we get to Mongolia and have to come back and report that nothing happened, well, at least we took the adventure...
I had under estimated the power of story
I ought to know better. My grandmother was a war artist and war correspondent in the front line of the battle of the bulge, the push through Holland and the fall of Berlin, then went back to South Africa to become a member of black sash - women against apartheid. My grandfather - another journalist - escaped from the defeat at Tobruk by jumping out of his burning tank and getting on an abandoned motorcycle. He later also went on to champion the cause of anti aparthiedism and we, the youngest generation of the family, grew up on those stories. Stories that made us realize that an individual or group of individuals can indeed make quite a difference.
Fast forward: when we got back from Mongolia my mother (daughter of the two grandparents above), began to make photo books for Scub each year, detailing everything he had done, with photographs, little drawings and narrative. Every year rowan would be presented with one of these personal story books and he would pore over them for hours, even when he wouldn’t really read other books, studying and reliving his own stories, talking about them and gradually taking other narratives from those narratives and making them his own. Finding his voice.
Then he began his own show - Endangerous. If you haven’t looked at endangeroussafaris.comyet - his TV show online - check it out
And then he started reading the horse boy and the long ride home.
I was nervous at first. What would he think? The books are pretty raw after all.
He found them hilarious. Peals of laughter tumbling down the stairs from his room. He’d come and read me sections of them aloud, crying with laughter...
He’d never read me anything before.
And now here he was, reading like a pro... aloud or silently. And little by little other stories started to bubble out of him. Some will be seeing the light of day soon as children’s books
I guess we humans are the story telling apes. It’s what marks our species out as different from the others. There seems to be healing in story.
Perhaps the original shamanic act.
So now, every week with Scub and with many of the other kids at horse boy, we concoct stories about them, write them down, read them to them - with surprising results. a non-verbal boy just the other day who I had had immense trouble getting through to suddenly gripped my arm and smile when I sat down next to him and said: "and now I’m going to tell you a story about a little boy called Jim who had green eyes and loved his mother very much and adored to sit in the little red truck and honk the horn..."
And when I paused, he shook my arm, to continue...he'd never so much as looked my way for more than a millisecond before.
The power of story
So create stories. Write them down; illustrate them with photographs and sketches. Involve your kids; let them see their lives as inspiration to themselves. As heroes. Throw in whatever education you want to but give them confidence in themselves as the master of their own destinies. Their own super heroes.
There is a power there that even I - a writer of over twenty years' standing -am only just beginning to see. With autism communication is our holy grail. It’s there in story - we are living it every day. All we need to do become the scribe, the chronicler, for the hero in our lives. And read it to them, igniting the imagination. To whose potential there is, as we know, no limit.