A love of horses offered hope for my autistic son
When Rupert Isaacson's son was diagnosed with autism, he feared he would never be able to communicate with him. But a chance discovery with horses has led to a decade filled of healing adventures.
"The problem with diagnosis is that it's a diagnosis," Rupert Isaacson smiles. "The way it's done is quite brutal."
It's a sunny afternoon in Dublin and Rupert has just come from the ChildVision Equine centre in Drumcondra, where he has been training instructors in his 'Horseboy method' of equine therapy for autistic children.
It is a world away from where the journalist, human rights campaigner, horse- lover and father, found himself following that moment 10 years ago when he sat listening to Rowan's doctor.
"The manner in which it is done often causes parents to despair and to become paralysed by that despair," Rupert explains. "You go into the neurologist's office and the guy is there with a long face and says: 'I regret to inform you that your child...' and from a physician's perspective there is nothing really that can be done. They don't really know autism from the inside. They know of certain therapies, but they don't really know much about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of them.
"So what they basically say to you is that your kid has this thing that we don't really understand, it's incurable and you are probably going to have to mortgage your house for all of these therapies, which may or may not work. That's it, see you later!" Rupert explains.
"It's like you walk in through a door and there is a guy waiting with a bat and he hits you in the face and he kicks you in the crotch, charges you 100 bucks for it and then kicks you out.
"That does not inspire a parent to get out there and take it as an adventure and really dive into it and make friends with autism," Rupert adds. "So I did despair for a while, but in retrospect I realised that the way the diagnosis should be handled is this - there should be a bottle of champagne on ice and the neurologist should say 'Congratulations! Your son has this special kind of genius gene, and now the challenge and adventure is going to be how we access it because he has got certain challenges - he's not verbal, he's incontinent, he has tantrums - but we can address these and here are all of these success stories of people who have been in a very similar situation to your kid and we are right here, shoulder to shoulder with you on this adventure. So let's drink to that!' Imagine how that would inform the next two years as a parent," Rupert smiles.
Soon after Rowan's diagnosis, Rupert began to notice certain tendencies which his child had.
"Luckily I am a journalist, so I am a trained observer," Rupert explains. "So I noticed what Rowan liked and what he didn't like. He did much better outside, for example, so we were outside all of the time. I didn't know it at the time, but nature was calming down his over-stimulated nervous system."
It was on one of their many outdoor excursions that Rowan discovered Betsy, their neighbour's horse and ran, much to his father's dismay right under the large mare's feet and lay on his back beneath her hooves.
"I am a horse guy - but I had stopped riding because I thought that Rowan wasn't safe around horses," Rupert explains. "When Rowan saw Betsy and ran to her I panicked, I thought he was going to get trampled. So I was creeping up towards the fence to try and grab him, when something incredible happened - she bent her head to him and began to lick and chew with her mouth, which is a submission or acceptance gesture in horses, not dissimilar to a dog showing their belly. As a horse trainer you recognise that. There are techniques you can use to get a horse to do that, but I had never seen a horse spontaneously offer it before."
Rowan's trips to see Betsy became a daily occurrence, which helped to calm the symptoms of his condition considerably.
After running the idea by his neighbour, Rupert bought a western-style saddle so he could ride on Betsy, with Rowan every day.
"At that point he was just what's called echolaliac, which is where they will talk, but they'll just repeat stuff they have heard and often repeat the last three words. So I said to him one day 'should we ride to the woods or to the pond?' and he said 'to the pond!' and I thought well that's just classic echolalia, but then we got to the pond and there was this big heron, which got up and flapped away and Rowan just looked and said 'heron.' I never knew he knew that word and from there he just got better and began responding to choices I would give him. He started to speak and this was the same week that the speech therapist gave up on him and said he would never speak."
Rupert was born in London to a South African mother and Zimbabwean father. Throughout his journalistic and human rights work in Africa, Rupert founded the Indigenous Land Rights Fund, a non-profit organisation that helps indigenous tribes obtain legal title to their ancestral lands.
In the same year as Rowan was diagnosed, Rupert brought a delegation of bush men from Botswana to the United Nations in New York.
"Some of the guys in that delegation were trained healers and they met Rowan and offered to do some work on him. I agreed because I had seen it before and I knew it was just prayer, they weren't going to harm him," Rupert explains.
The healers had a huge impact on Rowan's condition.
"He fell back into the more obsessive behaviours that he had when they left, but it made us think - we've had a middling to negative response from the orthodox therapies, but a radical and positive reaction to the horse and a radical and positive reaction to these healers - so is there a place that combines the two?"
Rupert found the answer to this question in Mongolia - the spiritual home of the horse - a country rich in shamanistic healing traditions and he followed his gut feeling and travelled there with Rowan in search of this relief.
The trip began a decade of adventure, which has not only seen healing hands and horses banish Rowan's tantrums, incontinence and isolation, but has also inspired the pair to travel throughout Namibia, Australia's coastal rainforests and America's Navajo reservation.
It has been a very unique journey, which has taught Rupert to love and respect autism and learn from his son's condition rather than fear it.
And Rupert has since incorporated these lessons into the Horseboy learning programme, which he now runs for the children and parents of children with autism around the world, so that they do not have to rely on expensive therapies.
"There is nothing theoretical about what we do in our Horseboy method, which is the way we do it with horses and we also do a Horseboy learning programme, without horses," Rupert says. "It's all about what the kids are showing us. So with Rowan, for example, it wasn't my idea to put him on a horse, he made his own move to Betsy. I followed him. In everything that we do our mentors are the kids.
"The only way that you will know what they like to do, particularly with the non-verbal kids, is to watch what they do with their body," Rupert adds. "So you watch and see is there a pattern to what they are doing? What are they interacting with? You get clues which you need to observe, but that can be difficult when you are under pressure.
"You are the parent that gets told in the supermarket by people that you are a terrible parent when you are dealing with autism, it happens all of the time," Rupert explains. "It's only going to occur to you that this behaviour has the key to your child's mind if either you have been trained in observation or you've tried and failed to do something else and suddenly realised that this is all you've got. But the important bit to realise is that the kid is training you."
For Rupert, being the parent of a child with autism is both a challenge and a privilege. The key, he believes in overcoming the obstacles associated with the condition, is not trying to treat autism with a one-size-fits-all approach, which will almost definitely fail. The most useful way to cope is to listen to or watch what your autistic child is trying to tell you.
"I tried with Rowan to make him 'normal'. It didn't work," Rupert smiles. "So then I had to make friends with autism; learn to love it and find it amazing. Then suddenly there was no conflict."
- Rupert Isaacson's book, published by Penguin, is out now.
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