It is extraordinary to me how much my family has in common with Rupert Issacson’s, the man who wrote a book called The Horse Boy about healing his autistic son, Rowan, by taking him to Mongolia to ride horses and visit shamans.

On the surface, our sons are worlds apart: Brooks has never traveled half way around the world, he was toilet-trained well before he was five, and he never had the relentless tantrums described in such painful detail in the book. But the raw sting of watching your child tailspin into sheer desperation was all too familiar: “A fist closed about my heart…crushing it as if a kid were picking up a baby chick too roughly and squeezing the life from it.”

Familiar also is the fervent wish that simple games could lose their obsessive quality so that Rowan’s mom might be able to enjoy singing The Carpenters’ “Sing, sing a song…” once or twice with her son and then stop, without the ever-present “Sing! More sing!” which forces her to continue on and on, over and over again, for what seems like forever.

Rowan’s successes, like Brooks’s, are nothing less than magical. When the boy spies an eagle’s nest in his breathtakingly beautiful new environment, his dad proclaims: “I love you, Rowan,” expecting the usual lack of response. But this time was different: “He didn’t look at me…but said matter-of-factly, ‘I love you too, Daddy.’ Such a rare pronouncement, rare like a jewel. I sat up, swept him into my arms, and hugged him to me. This enigmatic, impossible, unknowable boy.”

Issacson’s refreshingly thoughtful approach to his unorthodox methods to save his son made it impossible for me to dismiss him as a quack, which I have to admit, was my initial reaction. Shamans in Mongolia and horseback riding cure a five-year-old autistic boy? Give me a break.

But the truth is that the author rightfully prioritized what was helping his son the most. Rowan was more verbal and communicative when he was riding horses, and that progress was simply not apparent within his traditional autism therapies.

He also makes compellingly reasonable arguments for being open-minded about things we don’t understand, like shamanism: “All that cannot be explained by the rational is cast out as heresy. Yet so much of our lives is governed by things we cannot hope to quantify in rational or scientific terms. Like love, for instance. Everybody experiences it, craves it, requires it for his or her very existence, knows it’s there. But no one can explain it, break it down into physics and chemistry. Then again, if we aren’t skeptical, we become the prey of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen, priests and dictators.”

I’ll admit I was disturbed by one shamanistic ritual with a whip where Issacson and his wife sustained red welts on their bodies—this easily bordered on abuse. But thankfully, the father immediately put a stop to it when it was attempted on Rowan. (And it made me question my own ideas about what constitutes abuse: to some, circumcision is abuse, yet it’s a cultural and religious norm for millions.)

A recent New York Times blog post checked in with autism experts about whether the hope that The Horse Boy offers to struggling families is real or false. While most caution against one family’s experience constituting a useful treatment model, many agree that children often respond well to animals and that a complete change of environment can be a catalyst for developmental leaps. Temple Grandin, author of the illuminating Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, is a big fan of therapeutic horseback riding: “It’s rhythm and balance. These activities are really good for the autistic brain.”

While I do not believe that a trip to Mongolia is a cure for autism, I do believe that this family, like my own, made it their first priority to save their son. They followed their instincts, but not blindly; only with careful deliberation. Although a parent’s dedication is no guarantee of success — no promise of a cure — it would be a mistake to underestimate its role. I guess it’s impossible to quantify these kinds of efforts, but if some really smart scientist figured out how, it would be great to have hard data on how much difference loving, committed parents can make, whether they trek halfway around the world or not.

Author’s Note: If you’re planning to read The Horse Boy, please support with your a portion of your purchase at Also, the book is being made into a documentary film, coming to theaters in September 2009—here’s the trailer:


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