A travel writer with a penchant for political advocacy and a tolerant, soul searching wife venture to the untamed landscape of Outer Mongolia with their five year old son whose behaviors would sap the loving intentions of any parent. The objective was to find the Shamans who can heal their son, an exploit that entailed meeting the chairman of the Shaman’s Association of Mongolia, ceremonies where they were spat on with vodka, lashed with rawhide followed by jumping as the ground beneath their feet was whipped, consuming half-cooked, bloody animal organs and traveling to the far north by horse to find the Shaman living amongst the reindeer people.
Descriptions of exotic cultures and Rupert Isaacson’s humor (i.e. “Code Brown” for poopy pants) make this an enjoyable book to read. In addition, the meaning behind an odyssey with filmmaker friends, translator Tulga and numerous guides and horses to carry equipment, supplies and Rowan’s dietary staple of Bacon beckons profound questions. Can the shamans heal Rowan of tantrums, incontinence and social isolation; to stride one leg into the world of friends, play, asking questions and self- control?
Was this a trip to cure autism? A simple yes or no will not suffice. All of the sensory stimulation that Rowan experienced both on the neighbor’s horse, Betsy and their Asian journey contributed to normalizing a nervous system set on high alert. The up and down, forward and sudden halt, side to side movements organize the brain, making a child more available for learning. The heavy pushing on arms, hands and neck while bouncing and jostling stimulate the joints and muscles and the touch and smells of horses and all the other animals in Rowan’s life again work to make an engine like nervous system run at a more normal speed.
But what about the Mongolian culture that accepts those with social differences in sharp contrast to the tourist who took the liberty to tell Rowan’s parents to control their kid in public. We also must not neglect the fact that the mother and father who provided the genetic material that gave Rowan the disposition to connect with animals, spiritual awareness and innate cognitive abilities (reading sentences by age six!) enabled him to blossom given the perfect storm of emotional, sensory and cognitive stimulation.
A story about healing a child with autism is destined to be controversial and strike a different cord in each reader. As an occupational therapist who has eschewed the dictates of school therapies to put joyful children on horses as I work to improve their sensory processing, language and motor skills I wholeheartedly believe in the power of the horse, as a living therapeutic tool. I combine the principles of sensory integration (providing the stimulation that helps the brain get organized to learn) with behavioral modification- saying “fast” will bring a reward of trotting movement and tantrumming will result in the horse stopping. Children who hate to touch objects learn that grasping and pulling reins makes the horse stop so that they can be rewarded with a high five from dad.
I highly recommend reading this book so that readers can experience the intensity of parenting a child with autism, to empathize with its impact on a marriage and admire the force of love that propelled such a journey, book and soon to be movie. May that tourist who so readily criticized Rowan’s parents for not controlling his volume turn red with shame and may the rest of us become a bit more open to those who are different, but all hold the same rights to social inclusion.
One last thought- the author questions whether such children should even be “cured” but instead better accepted in our culture of limited acceptance. Should those with atypical brains (atypical because they are the minority, but quickly gaining in numbers) be considered deviant in the first place? There is a whole “Aspie World” (the term Aspie was coined by Liane Holliday Willy) out there and brilliant minds- such as Temple Grandin’s who think outside the box. As my math majoring 20 year old Aspie said when I asked if he wanted to be part of a research project looking at how students with Asperger’s syndrome are managing in college- “don’t those neurotypical researchers have anything better to do than gawk at us geniuses?” HA!
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