By Nils Skudra
Recently I had the opportunity to watch The Horse Boy, a deeply intriguing and thought-provoking documentary on a couple’s efforts to find an effective source of therapeutic treatment for their young son on the autism spectrum. This documentary, released in 2009, provides a highly compelling examination of autism on a variety of levels, featuring commentary from several prominent autism professionals and clinical psychologists, including Temple Grandin and Simon Baron-Cohen, and delving into the parents’ emotional journey.
Considering the growth in the number of people diagnosed with autism and the advances that have been made in treatments for autism during the fourteen years since the documentary’s release, I believe that audiences, particularly parents of autistic children, will find the film profoundly moving and relatable to their own experiences in different ways.
The documentary opens by introducing Rupert Isaacson, a British writer and former horse trainer, who elaborates upon how he met his wife, psychology professor Kristin Neff, while traveling abroad, reflecting that the two formed an immediate connection and that after several years together, they married and decided to start a family. While they were initially overjoyed by the birth of their son Rowan, the couple’s lives took a dramatic turn when he was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Rupert recalls that he was devastated by this news, feeling a sense of guilt and shame because of the stigma associated with autism.
During the next several years, Rupert and Kristin struggled with trying to manage Rowan’s severe symptoms, which took the form of meltdowns and tantrums that seemingly had no triggering factor. Rupert states that because autism is a neurological disorder, autistic children have different triggers for tantrums and consequently can be more difficult to console. Furthermore, Rupert and Kristin found that despite their efforts to find the best possible medical care for Rowan, conventional therapies made little headway in trying to improve their son’s condition.
As Rupert and Kristin dealt with Rowan’s symptoms they recall feeling a sense of despair and depression over their inability to connect with their son, though they rejected the idea of putting him in an institution, which used to be the standard treatment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities during the mid-20th century. However, when they discovered that Rowan had a strong kinship with animals – especially horses since they had a calming effect on him – they decided to explore alternative forms of therapeutic treatment in the hope of finding a source of healing for Rowan. As Rupert conducted extensive research on this topic, he found that in Mongolia, shamans had a reputation for healing children with severe neurological symptoms. This led Rupert to convince Kristin to take Rowan on a journey across the world to seek out a notable shaman on the Mongolian steppes.
Rowan’s kinship with horses is reflective of the close bond that many autistic children form with animals. Temple Grandin, the renowned animal husbandry professional and autism advocate, relates her experiences in this regard, explaining that because of the different neurological functioning of autistic individuals’ minds, they often find animals to be a source of comfort that they can easily connect with, as opposed to other people. This is also exemplified by service dogs who provide emotional support to people with autism due to their often-severe levels of stress and anxiety. Consequently, the use of horses as a therapeutic treatment for autistic individuals has become a widely accepted methodology, manifested in the establishment of equestrian centers which provide horseback riding lessons for people with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities.
As the documentary progresses in its coverage of Rowan’s journey, it features commentary from various psychologists on the different aspects of autism. Among these psychologists is Simon Baron-Cohen, an esteemed British clinical psychologist who has written extensively on autism. He elaborates upon some key elements which paint a more multifaceted portrait of the diagnosis. For example, he states that autism is a highly diverse spectrum, which can range from “a severely mentally retarded person to a person with a Ph.D. in mathematics.” Each person in these respective categories, he notes, displays particular traits which distinguish them from neurotypical individuals. These can include positive traits, such as an intensive focus in one’s field of intellectual specialization and a strong attention to detail and organization, and more challenging behaviors, including the severe tantrums and meltdowns that Rowan displays. Some of these symptoms can be improved upon over time through therapeutic treatment, both professional and, in some cases, alternative forms which Rupert and Kristin seek to utilize during their time in Mongolia.
While many viewers today might show skepticism toward the effectiveness of shamanistic treatment for Rowan’s severe symptoms, the documentary conveys a deeply moving message of hope and the power of parental love in seeking therapeutic aid for their son. In the years since the documentary’s release, Rupert Isaacson began collaborating with Temple Grandin and neuroscientist Dr. Robert Naviaux to establish the Horse Boy Foundation and develop the “Horse Boy Method,” a therapeutic treatment involving the use of horses, Rupert states, “to address neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, ADHD, anxiety, trauma; basically anything that’s to do with the nervous system and the brain.” Rupert further elaborates that by placing neurodivergent children with specially trained horses, “you flood them with oxytocin and BDNF and new, more functional, brain cells grow through neuroplasticity.”
This method is now used in over 30 countries and helps around 300,000 people a week, including military veterans. Furthermore, fourteen years after the release of The Horse Boy, Rowan, now in his early twenties, is attending community college, lives independently and owns his car, and has made significant improvements in his verbal communication skills. Rupert reflects, “There are times when I look at him and go, ‘wow, you were non-verbal and incontinent once.’ That person is a memory now. He’s still autistic but he’s super functional. It’s like the two sides of him run in a harmonious parallel. His autism is no longer a challenge. It doesn’t result in suffering or meltdowns. It’s now sort of a charming quirkiness.”
In summation, The Horse Boy articulates a powerful and moving, albeit often painful, portrait of Rupert and Kristin’s efforts to find effective therapeutic treatment for their son, which ultimately had a profound long-term impact on equestrian treatment for people with neurodivergent conditions on a global scale.
Parents of autistic children who view this documentary today, with the benefit of significant advances in autism psychotherapy during the fourteen years since The Horse Boy’s release, will hopefully come away with a strong appreciation for the ways in which this couple’s journey worked for the benefit of people with autism worldwide, as well as an inspiration to seek out therapeutic aid for their children so that they will achieve success in their lives.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.