The Horse Boy – Book Review

Most regular readers know that my beloved grandson, Mikey, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome several years ago. Asperger’s is a part of what is known as the “Autism Spectrum” and is located on the higher functioning portion of that spectrum. Mikey is extremely intelligent and unusually intuitive about certain things, but does have difficulty with social behavior and fitting in to the “norms” of social behavior as well as processing large or loud amounts of images and/or sounds, and has the tendency to become obsessive about certain subjects and actions.

Although it never seems to be enough for me, I spend a lot of time researching autism in general and Asperger’s in particular, searching for knowledge to help me understand and deal with what my grandson lives with each day, and for information that may help him as he learns to cope with a world that he sees in a much different way than I do. He is 8 years old now and has begun to realize that he is “different” from other kids in his school. Knowing how unthinking and unfiltered kids can be in their words, I’m sure that he has already, along with his other “special” classmates, been subjected to comments that he and they are “stupid”, “slow”, “weird” and any number of other disparaging terms. I have surmised this from some recent depression he has experienced and a voicing of things about himself that he has never heard from his mom, dad or other family members.

But this post is not about Mikey, per se, but rather about a book I recently read because of him. A few months back I heard about a “therapy” for autistic, ADD and Asperger’s children that involved horses. This therapy goes by several different labels such as “Equine Therapy”, “Equine Facilitated Learning” and “Hippotherapy” but it all boils down to some seemingly great strides (no pun intended) that these children and their parents have seen after working with horses. In my searches for information about this therapy I came across a book, written by a father of a seriously autistic child, titled “The Horse Boy.”

I happen to mention in one of my tweets on Twitter that I was looking forward to buying the book and seeing if this true story might contain something that would be helpful to Mikey. Amazingly, a few minutes after posting that Tweet, a member of the staff of Little Brown, the publisher of the book, sent me a tweet graciously asking if I would be interested in a review copy. I gratefully accepted their offer and a few days after sending them my snail mail address the copy arrived in the mail at home. Cindy included it in one of the “care packages” that she sends me when I’m on the road and a few days later it was in my hands.

“The Horse Boy” is subtitled, “A Father’s Quest To Heal His Son” and I think that is the bedrock foundation of the entire story. Not that his son’s autism isn’t a major theme; it is, but it is more suffused with the belief of the father that he MUST make this quest to try and bring healing or what he feels would be healing to his son.

Rupert Isaacson was a writer and his wife Kristin a psychologist when their son Rowan, named after a tree in old British folktales that represented white magic, was born in Austin Texas in December of 2001. When Rowan was 18 months old, Kristin, who had training in child development, began to be a little worried when her son did not exhibit typical behaviors that most children do during that time in their development. After another year when little improvement came and instead the usual withdrawing that takes place with autistic children manifested itself, they suspected that Rowan might be autistic. Six months later, when Rowan was a little over 3 years of age, doctors completed their tests and told the Isaacson’s that their son was indeed autistic.

Rupert had been an accomplished horseman when he was younger and growing up in England. In fact, one of the reasons he and Kristin had eventually settled in Austin was so that he could again enjoy horseback riding and perhaps teach Rowan as he grew, whenever Rupert was home from his travel writing career. Now, it seemed to Rupert that Rowan would never share his father’s love of horses.

During an accidental meeting one day with a neighbor’s horse, Rupert is astonished to see the great creature gently react to Rowan’s typical hyperactive state and the possible connections begin to be made in Rupert’s mind. Shortly after this, Kristin and Rowan accompany Rupert on a visit to some Kalahari Desert Bushmen who have come to visit the UN and Rowan gets his first exposure to shamans, the spiritual leaders of some of the tribes. His behavior changes radically in their presence and Rupert is genuinely intrigued.

As the story progresses Rowan displays more and more reactions to the horse, Betsy, and Rupert begins investigating a group of Mongolian shamans that his Bushmen friends have mentioned to him. Before long, despite Kristin’s reluctance, Rupert has arranged to travel to Mongolia with a cameraman and sound technician to film the journey and any possible outcome, as well as for him to write about the experience. Thereafter the majority of the book is about their travel by van and then by horse across the wild, untamed land of Mongolia. Several interesting things happen along the way and at the end of their journey, carrying over to their return home to Austin.

This was a good read and I’m not just saying that because it was a review copy. Because my interests lie more in the areas of “Equine Therapy”, “Equine Facilitated Learning” and “Hippotherapy”, I would have wished the subject matter dealt with those therapies in greater detail. I’m not a spiritual man and do not put stock in such things, so the various rituals and trials they were instructed to endure by the shamans seemed ignorant and almost cruel to me, especially those things which made Rupert physically sick. But I can also understand a man, a father, doing everything he thinks might possibly work for his child’s well-being. I cannot fault Rupert for his single-minded desire to do anything to help Rowan.

Isaacson also brings out an interesting thought. Two of them, in fact.

First, he posits that, rather than an abnormality, autism may be it’s own type of personality. A running theme through the story is that the shamans all express to Rupert that, they too, once had the behavioral traits that Rowan possess. It may help explain Rowan’s calmness around them and his even allowing them to touch him, something he would not allow anyone other than his mother and father to do. There did indeed seem to be some connection.

Second, he touches on the “cure” question. At the end of the book, Rupert states that despite all the improvements Rowan experienced, “…he has not been cured. Nor would I want him to be. To “cure” him, in terms of trying to tear the autism out, now seems to me completely wrong. Why can’t he exist between the worlds…It is a rich place to be. Can Rowan keep learning the skills necessary to swim in our world while retaining the magic of his own? It seems a tangible dream.”

I used to silently disagree with my daughter when she would say or write that she would not want to cure Mikey. I was not going to argue with her about it, he is her son after all, but from my perspective Mikey’s life would be so much easier if he did not have to deal with the Asperger’s. What I wanted was Mikey, and all the things that make up Mikey to remain, except for the Asperger’s so that his life would be free of that particular hardship. This is difficult to even write and I have to keep getting up from the desk because my eyes are tearing up as I try to put this down in words. You just never want your loved ones to be hurt, whether by their own actions or especially by circumstances they have no control over. Mikey didn’t ask for this, nor did his mom and dad. And for a guy who never looked at the world as being “fair” or “unfair”, this seemed completely unfair to me.

But a few months ago, before ever reading this book and Isaacson’s words above, I came to the realization that it was ridiculous to imagine a Mikey without the Asperger’s. Mikey is who he is and all those things that are a part of him, even the Asperger’s, are what make him Mikey. I would not love him any more without the Asperger’s and I certainly do not love him any less because of it. My daughter showed much more wisdom than her old man did on this one, but I’m glad I could find my way to this truth.

But that truth does not preclude me from continuing to seek ways and means for Mikey to have tools to help him cope with this world that does not always understand him. Whatever I can do to make things easier for him, I feel like I have to do. To not do so would mean he does not mean all that he does to me.

Even if you have no connection to the subject matter, I recommend “The Horse Boy” as an excellent story of a father, faults and all just like the rest of us, taking up the quest to heal his son. And for those of you who remember the mention of the camera and sound men who accompanied them, the film is scheduled to be out in theaters in the Fall of this year.

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