Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Shamans and Horses work Magic

Shamans and horses work magic on autistic Rowan
Rupert Isaacson was almost at his wits’ end over his son’s demonic fits, but a riding trip in Mongolia to visit local healers brought an amazing change. From Sunday Times Article....

When Rupert Isaacson decided to take his five-year-old son on a three-week trek across Mongolia on horseback, it wasn’t just his friends who thought he’d gone crazy. His wife Kristin was appalled. Rowan was autistic: incontinent, uncommunicative and given to fearsome bouts of nerve-shredding screeching, even at home. How on earth would he cope?
Isaacson had become obsessed with the idea that his son had inherited his own affinity for horses and believed that if he could take Rowan to the mountainous region where horses originated and seek help from its shamans, he might find a cure. “For a while Kristin thought I was being completely bananas,” he admits. “She wondered who really needed to be healed here, Rowan or me.”
London-born Isaacson, 42, discovered his gift for horses as a child on visits to his aunt’s farm in Berkshire and has made a career as a horse trainer, travel writer and campaigner on behalf of indigenous peoples. In the 1990s, having discovered a family link to a group of displaced bushmen in South Africa, he helped them to reclaim their ancestral land and subsequently founded the Indigenous Land Rights Fund.
Extended periods spent living in the bush brought him into contact with traditional healers and convinced him of their powers. Could they take an autistic boy and succeed in unlocking his mind where western medicine had failed? To find out, the family set off across Mongolia in May 2007 on an adventure with an astonishing outcome – one he is convinced may point to new ways of treating autism, a developmental disorder that is relentlessly on the rise.
Rowan’s odd behaviour became obvious when he was about 18 months old. He seemed to inhabit his own little world; when his name was called, he didn’t look round. He never pointed at things he was interested in, nor brought little gifts to show his mother. Instead of playing with toys, he lined them up obsessively in rows. Then the tantrums started: not the usual “I’m hungry/tired/bored” outbursts that all parents are familiar with, but strange, demonic fits that could come out of nowhere and last for hours.
Isaacson and his wife, a developmental psychologist based at Texas University, were baffled. Autistic children are often obsessed with objects or routines: they also tend to be undemonstrative, avoiding eye contact. “Rowan seemed too emotionally connected to be autistic,” says Isaacson, “but then Kristin looked up the symptoms and he ticked every box but one.”
About one in 500 children in Britain has some form of the disorder. A large proportion suffer seizures. From what we know of autistic people’s brains, some parts seem to be “overwired”, making them hyper-sensitive. A gentle breeze can feel, to an autistic child, like being blasted by a flame-thrower. A fluorescent strip-light may seem to flicker thousands of times a second, causing confusion and panic.
It goes without saying that looking after an autistic child is exhausting. It drove the Isaacsons almost to their wits’ end, but they reacted in different ways: Kristin, the rational academic, put her professional knowledge and energy into finding an effective cognitive or behavioural therapy, while her more romantic husband sought solace in nature. He found he could calm Rowan’s tantrums or “neurological fire-storms” by taking him into the open. In the fields and woods around their home in Texas, father and son could find some peace.
One day, when Rowan was almost three, something unexpected happened. Isaacson, who had all but given up riding, believing his son would be unsafe around horses, did not notice until too late that Rowan had run through a neighbour’s fence. Five horses were grazing on the other side: “Rowan ran in among them and threw himself on his back among the hooves. I froze. I didn’t want to spook the horses.”
Rowan lay there as the horses sniffed him, then Betsy, the herd’s formidable boss mare, pushed to the fore, gazed at Rowan and bent her head in submission – a gesture called “making obeisance”, which Isaacson had never seen a horse make spontaneously: “I thought: shit, he’s got the horse gene.”
He asked if he could borrow Betsy and, as he was saddling up, suggested to Rowan they might get on the horse’s back. “Up!” said Rowan.
“Do you want Betsy to go?” he asked, when they were both on the horse. Rowan said: “Go! Go!” It doesn’t sound like much, but this was Rowan’s first lucid speech. Soon he was talking intelligibly. Something strange happened when he was on the horse. “He began to talk meaningfully, not just babble or recite Thomas the Tank Engine train names,” says Isaacson. “For the time we were together in the saddle there were no tantrums. It became a place of respite and joy.”
Experts who have heard Rowan’s story speculate that there may be a physiological explanation for his progress; that the constant finding and refinding of one’s balance on top of a moving horse stimulates the brain. But what happened next has no rational explanation. Later that year, when Rowan was three, Isaacson brought a group of bushmen from Botswana to the United Nations in New York to protest against land being lost to diamond mining. Their chief shaman, or “wise man”, performed a healing ritual on Rowan. “It was extraordinary,” says his father. “For five days or so it really was like having a normal kid. Rowan’s symptoms started to fall away. The problem was as soon as we went home he tumbled back into the autism.”
After the “healing”, Isaacson’s mind locked onto what he believed was a “logical” question: was there a place that combined horses and shamanism, the two things to which Rowan had best responded? Yes, there was: Mongolia.
Despite Kristin’s reservations, he started planning a trip. He also put together a book proposal which to his astonishment – and perhaps echoing the success of The Horse Whisperer – set the publishing world alight. The Horse Boy had sold to 20 countries andt will be published in Britain next month. Over the Hills and Far Away, a documentary filmed en route, recently had its premiere at the Sundance film festival. The crew that travelled with them seemed an unwelcome encumbrance sometimes, but proved a godsend, says Isaacson: “If we’d gone alone and just reported what had happened, people could have said it was wishful thinking, but it’s there on film – there’s no question of having made this up.”
It’s a key point, for without those wit-nesses this story would be hard to believe, reliant as it is on the power of primitive and little-understood ceremonies. In tribal societies the shaman takes a social, political or health dilemma to the spirit world and comes back from his or her trance with instructions. Although Isaacson claims to have been sceptical when he first encountered healers among the bushmen of South Africa – “I certainly thought at the start it was going to be more a cultural thing than an actual system of medicine” – he also believes that shamanic healing works.
“Once you’ve seen enough people with cancer, or snake bites, or dementia or whatever, healed – and the doctors scratching their heads and saying we don’t know where the tumour’s gone, you come to realise it’s a pretty valid system.”
He’s well aware of how flaky this makes him sound: “It’s outside of our ken because although we did have some of these systems in European culture we destroyed them. In the Middle Ages we burnt every village herbalist, let alone shaman. People might think all this is airy-fairy, but bushmen are very practical people: they live in the desert . . . they don’t do anything unless it serves a practical purpose.
“And just remember the bushmen won the largest land claim in South African history with pretty much all their decisions based on someone going into a trance and asking advice from the ancestor spirits.”
To western eyes the ceremonies they underwent appear bizarre. One Mongolian shaman told them Rowan had been touched by “black energy” in the womb and it was necessary to draw this negative energy away. Another prescribed fermented goat’s milk. A female shaman beat on a drum while summoning spirits with a whirling, dancing prayer. They were hit with reindeer horns and spattered with vodka.
Yet at the end of the first day, Rowan wandered towards a group of onlookers. “It almost sounds as though it was scripted,” says Isaacson, “but he reaches out to this kid who’s at the fringes of the healing circle and says, ‘Mongolian brother’.” Tomoo, the son of the family’s interpreter, had just become Rowan’s first friend.
As their trek across Mongolia continued, so did Rowan’s progress, despite setbacks – intermittent tantrums that saw him refuse to go near a horse and reduced his father almost to despair. At last they reached the so-called Reindeer people, reputed to have the most powerful shamans. After a ceremony there, Rowan’s incontinence was apparently cured.
Rowan is seven now. He is educated at New Trails, a special centre set up by his parents near Austin, Texas, with the money from their publishing advance. “Three months ago he had no maths, now he’s exactly where he should be,” Isaacson says. “He’s started drawing. He’s doing chores to save up for a baby chick. We went away to Mongolia with a kid who was subject to neurological fits, who was incontinent and completely cut off from his peers. He is still autistic, but he’s no longer suffering from these major dysfunctions which were impairing his quality of life – and ours.”
Are there lessons for other desperate parents? Isaacson believes the key to Rowan’s improvement is his connection to animals and nature. He plans to put him through a shamanic ceremony every year, but accepts that this is an Isaacson idiosyncrasy that does not necessarily chime with others. At the New Trails centre, autistic children are given time to spend with horses, rabbits and goats. One of the problems with the endless round of behavioural and occupational therapy Rowan had in his early years was his rigidity, Isaccson says; at New Trails the children can interact with the animals at their own pace.
He would like to set up similar centres in Britain and is riding with Rowan from the Uffington white horse to Avebury in Wiltshire in a fortnight’s time to raise money for an autism programme being launched by Riding for the Disabled.
“Not just autistic kids, but emotionally disturbed kids, or just kids can benefit from being near horses,” he says. “One of the problems of urban life is there’s a perception that horses are a rich man’s thing.”
Would Rowan’s symptoms have subsided anyway? Was it the horse that healed him or the shamans? “We’re not extremists, we followed every single orthodox western therapy under the sun and we still do. We just didn’t see the same radical response. If we had we would have said so.” Yet such is the change in Rowan that his father dares to hope for some sort of conventional future: “He’ll always be quirky, but I now think some day some woman might realise how cute he is and take him on.”

The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson will be published by Viking on March 5 at £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.69, including postage and packing, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135
Also listen again to a brief interview with Rupert on BBC Radio 4 Midweek March 4th.

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