Express, UK: How shamans, horses and global adventure gave an autistic boy his voice (June 2014)

ROWAN ISAACSON’s parents were told their son would never communicate – until a remarkable encounter proved the key to ending his silence.

Today 12-year-old Rowan Isaacson is confident enough to present a film on his web channel of a trip searching for bears in Transylvania with his author and film-maker father Rupert. 

That achievement is remarkable in itself but is more so if you learn that 10 years ago – when Rowan was diagnosed with autism – his parents were told to expect nothing from their non-speaking and socially isolated son. 

“Rowan is amazing,” says Rupert. “We were told he would not have much of a future. He is still very autistic. He always will be. But he is so functional now that he will be an autistic person with a career and a love life. We have proper conversations. I will never take any of that for granted.” 

For Rupert the first glimpse of possibilities came in 2004 when his son darted away on a walk near their Texas home, dashing into a field of horses. Rupert, a horse trainer, knew his small and unpredictable son was in danger but he was astonished to find him calmly being nuzzled by one of the biggest, habitually grumpiest mares. 

It soon became clear that Rowan, for whom communication with humans was so difficult, had an instinctive relationship with horses, and in particular with Betsy. Over the following months Rupert began to ride her with his son wedged before him in the saddle. The boy was clearly at ease and to his parents’ astonishment he began to formulate some words. 

After this, the family went on a riding adventure to Mongolia in 2007. Their adventure was then recounted in Rupert’s book Horse Boy, a bestseller in 2009 which was followed by a film. And now Rupert has written a follow-up, The Long Ride Home. In it he describes what happened after they returned from Mongolia with Rowan beginning to communicate, his tantrums and incontinence finally improving. 

“When we left Mongolia we were told by a tribal shaman that we must take Rowan on three more journeys to other places to meet other healers,” says Rupert. “I had a gut feeling that this was something we should do and when the progress from the first journey seemed to be falling away, we went for it.”

So in July 2008 Rowan, his mother Kristin, Rupert and grandmother Polly set off for Namibia where they met the bushmen of the remote Nyae Nyae region. 

Further trips followed – to Australia’s rainforest and America’s Navajo reservation. Each time the family asked shamanic healers to work with Rowan. His communication and conversation skills, his ability to understand the world around him and his happiness were all markedly improved. 

Rupert is well aware that many will dismiss his quest as “woo woo nonsense” but he is unperturbed. Indeed, he invites people to question what they read. “Everyone should be sceptical of me,” he says. “You don’t have to take my word for anything. This is our experience. It is very personal. Find out if it is true for you. That is healthy. Cynicism is different though. That is just being a chicken.” 

Can the easing of Rowan’s difficulties really be attributed to shamanic healing, or to horses? What about his happy family, the wonderful new experiences and sights of their adventures, even the fact that he is growing older? 

Rupert cheerfully admits that he doesn’t know what exactly has helped his son. “It is probably all of the above. I personally give a lot of credence to the healing though I am not at all against medicines. If there was nothing in it then those cultures would die out. These are also deeply practical people. They wouldn’t waste energy on things which didn’t work.” 

He is not saying that all children with autism should see healers or get on a horse. “The real issue is that you must follow your child and embrace the adventure. That will look completely different for every family, but it is the same process. Love your child, accept the autism and it will begin to come clear how you should proceed.” 

“Autism forces you to let go of scripts in your head about how things should be and to deal more with how things are. It makes you practical. You might not want to be the kind of person that thinks outside the box, but you have no choice. It may not even be a physical journey, but you can show your children you would go to the ends of the earth for them.” 

When Horse Boy was first published there was criticism that he was claiming a cure for autism. “I never did. There is no cure and nor should there be.

That notion is based on viewing autism as a catastrophe and I think we actually need to embrace it as a gift. “I was looking for healing, for ways to ameliorate some of the particular difficulties my own son faced. I made friends with autism a long time ago.” 

He is though firmly convinced that science is on his side when it comes to children learning while moving around. “It might be at the canter on a horse, on a trampoline, kayaking or doing anything else, but we know that children can learn information and skills in motion. Nature and movement are powerful forces.” 

Having seen their son’s remarkable progress, Rupert and Kristin (who recently had a very amicable split – “you wouldn’t realise we aren’t together any more,” he says) are deeply committed to helping other families of autistic children. 

They run a riding and therapy centre near their home and were recently asked to train teachers from their local schools district. They also train specialist riding instructors worldwide – including around 200 in Rupert’s native UK – through their charity Horse Boy Foundation. 

Chantal Bannister had already trained as a riding instructor with people with disabilities when she came across the Horse Boy system for children with autism. “I could immediately see it allowed us to help a group of children that couldn’t access our usual group sessions,” she explains. 

She completed the course and is passionate about its benefits. “When you see the children connect with the horses it is an amazing privilege. We had one little girl who never spoke at all. After her first session she said the horse’s name. We need to offer this chance to as many children as we can.” 

Rupert is delighted that his son’s experiences are helping children around the world. “This was actually all Rowan’s idea really. I wanted to keep him away from horses, to keep him safe. It was his instinct that showed us the way for him. Since then it has become my whole life.”

And now he is looking forward to more travels. “I love Rowan’s company and I believe boys should have adventures with their dads. What is fantastic is that Rowan can now actually tell us what we should be doing.” 

To order The Long Ride Home by Rupert Isaacson (published by Penguin at £7.99), call the Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, send a cheque or postal order payable to The Express Bookshop to Express Bookshop, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or order online at UK delivery is free.

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