An interview with Rupert Isaacson, whose The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son was published by Little, Brown.
PW: Your book in a sense is about the love between a father and his son. How has the writing of the book, the trip to Mongolia with Rowan and the overall experience affected the relationship between you and Rowan?
RI: Well, we have shared a great adventure. Rowan has shown me that the darkest of moments can be gateways to the most sublime of experiences. He also—and a lot of autistic people seem to exhibit this—seems to be almost completely without ego. So being with Rowan is kind of like being in the presence of someone enlightened. I find that when I’m working with the other kids at the New Trails Center (the equestrian and autism therapy place we’ve started in central Texas), they are like that too. It’s hard to explain—but it’s like you get a break from your own ego for a while, and that is a huge gift. I love my son, what can I say?
PW: As its title suggests, the events of the book revolve so much around horses: from local stables that do therapy work, to the fact that your autistic son Rowan is soothed when he’s around horses. What new discoveries have you made about the benefits of equine therapy?
RI: Well, other people seem to have made these discoveries a while back—being not too smart it took me a while to find out the science behind horse therapy. But studies have shown that any repetitive rocking motion that causes you to constantly find and re-find your balance opens up the learning receptors of the brain. At the same time, the motion causes the body to produce oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Add to that just how cool it is to be on the back of a horse and you have a pretty intrinsically motivating environment for learning. I’ve even found you can teach academics—reading and math, effectively, on the back of a horse. I wish I’d been taught that way!
PW: The Autism Society of America has been very supportive of The Horse Boy and the events described in the book; how did this come about?
RI: The ASA were always there for Kristin and me at the start of Rowan’s autism, when we were floundering around trying to make sense of the vast amounts of (often conflicting) information out there. The society is almost all volunteer-run by moms who are busy with their own autistic kids yet still find time to help others in a very hands-on, practical way. I wanted others to know about them.
PW: How did the Mongolian children react to Rowan, and he to them?
RI: Rowan made his first friend at the end of the first shamanic ceremony—reaching out to Tommoo, the six-year-old son of our guide, Tulga, and saying ‘Mongolian brother,’ which had our jaws on the floor, as Rowan hadn’t reached out like that before, much less said anything like that. The resulting friendship was perhaps helped by the language barrier: Tommoo maybe didn’t have the same expectations he might have had of a Mongolian peer. By the time we had been on the road two weeks or so, Rowan began playing with other children. He made the transition pretty suddenly in a town called Moron (they must have named it after me). Once he got home he started making friends with all the kids in our neighborhood near Austin. Tommoo and the Mongolian kids gave Rowan his start.
PW: Has Rowan’s behavior continued to improve since the trip to Mongolia? In what ways?
RI: I was worried that Rowan might regress when he got home, but he didn’t. If anything he progressed at a more accelerated rate. By the time we got home he had stopped tantrumming, was toilet trained, and was making friends with every kid he met—but by three months on he was reading at first grade level. We had his first birthday party that winter. Ghoste (the reindeer shaman who seemed to bring about the most radical changes in Rowan) said that we should do at least one good ceremony a year, no matter where. Last year we took Rowan to Namibia, where I know the Bushman healers personally; this year we’re making a journey to see Aboriginal healers in Australia. The journeys definitely bring us closer. Now, at seven, Rowan is reading at fourth-grade level, and is starting to write stories. He adds and subtracts fractions, which I could never do. Rowan wasn’t “cured”—he’s still autistic, and we still continue, as we always did, with Western therapies, too. But he was healed of the terrible dysfunctions that were holding him back. Now his autism comes across as more of a charming quirk—a personality trait rather than a disorder.