Screening of new documentary “The Horse Boy” challenges paradigms

November 13, 2009

“Why does autism have to be a shutting down of everything? Why can’t it be an opening to adventure?”

Those lines, uttered by Rupert Isaacson during the beginning of the new documentary, “The Horse Boy,” act as the film’s core premise. This film was screened Tuesday evening in Olin-Sang to an audience of about 30 people. As a special treat, Isaacson himself was in attendance to answer questions.

That enigmatic gentleman is the father of Rowan, a young boy with autism, who struggled with debilitating behaviors during his early years. Isaacson had the insanely creative (or possibly just insane) idea of taking his child, along with his wife to Mongolia in search of rare shamanistic healing rituals.

If you saw it in a feature film you might think this setup was a bit far-fetched. But as a testament to a true story, it proves a remarkably vibrant narrative of hope, fear, and discovery. And luckily it doesn’t try hard to be sentimental, for the tale itself is already incredibly poignant. We want to root for not only Rowan and his recovery but for his remarkably devoted parents.

Raising a child with autism is one of the most challenging tasks any human being can hope to undertake, and the film does not shy away from its darker shadows. The first few scenes of Rowan throwing excruciating tantrums are heartrending, and I occasionally wished the camera would turn away. But there’s no turning away in real life, and it is necessary to glimpse for 10 minutes what parents like the Isaacsons dealt with 24 hours a day.

In spite of his difficulties, Rowan exhibits some surprisingly positive behaviors. He learns to categorize toy animals and develops intimate bonds with horses. How this leads Isaacson to propose a trip halfway around the world to get in touch with shamans and equines is beyond my feeble intellect, but before I could raise an objection, the family was on the plane.

Although they originally land in the decrepit urban capital of Ulaanbaatar, the imagery of verdant hills and shimmering lakes soon defines the aesthetic. In this wide-open space, Rowan is free to run wild, literally and figuratively. Every minute change in his behavior, from tantrums to his bowel movements, is taken as a sign of either miraculous cure or dismal failure.

As the family makes the rounds of various shamans and mystical sites, a rigorous process for even the most experienced travelers, Isaacson and his wife, Kristin Neff, display their insecurities. Watching them question their motives and empathy is almost as stirring as seeing Rowan struggle with his challenges.

I can imagine parents of children with autism viewing this film and thinking, “Oh great, now I have to take my kid to Mongolia?” But the deeper lesson here is that autism presents as many opportunities as it closes off, demanding a new set of rules for debate.

Isaacson emphasized this point after the screening. In response to a student with autism, who asked if he believed hyper-focusing could constitute a strength, Isaacson answered overwhelmingly in the affirmative. He discussed his work with the New Trails Center that he founded in Texas. It is partly a therapeutic equestrian center for children with disabilities, but he emphasized the importance of acknowledging each child’s skill sets regardless of whether they involve riding horses.

People who asked questions, including parents and teachers of children with autism, shared their own personal perspectives. After one parent said, “Thanks for this, it was beautiful,” Isaacson responded, “Thank you for living it.”

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