Sunday, May 2, 2010

DVDebut: THE HORSE BOY -- one family's amazing autism story

When your child is threatened -- in this case with a seem-
ingly incurable prob-
lem -- anything, everything goes. So it is with Kristin Neff, Rupert Isaacson and their son Rowan (all three are shown, with horse, two photos below).  Rowan, in his very young years, develops full-out autism. Yes: the kind that is given to waves of non-stop tantrums and no control over bowel movements. These waves can last for up to four hours and are neurological in origin, which makes the child seemingly unreachable and worse, impossible to console.

When you've raised a "normal" child (yes, I know: whatever that means), it is very nearly impossible to imagine experiencing something like this. The other films that TrustMovies has lately seen on this subject (Her Name is Sabine, Autism: Made in the USA and even the narrative movie Adam, while all important and very good in their way, seem rather conventional next to THE HORSE BOY, a documentary directed and photographed by Michel Orion Scott, shown below.

To the wilds of Mongolia from the not-so-wilds of present- day Texas the film takes us, and the journey is alternately uplifting and upsetting but always just plain bizarre.  Because, during this family's most difficult time, young Rowan suddenly seems able to be calmed by proximity to horses, father Rupert researches everything he can about this connection and learns that Shamans -- yes, those people -- on the Mongolian plains are noted for their ability to work with the autistic.  Off goes the family, eastward to Mongolia.

What happens there is, depending on your viewpoint, amazing or maybe weird.  The film does not push us into belief, although seeing does tend to lead to believing.  For a time it seems as though Rowan goes one step forward and a couple back (at one point he even rejects horses).  Dad claims he is a better father because of his son's autism, which has forced him to listen.  "I'm glad now; we're into something good here," he later tells us.  For her part, Mom looks back at her own family and a grandmother whose bouts of manic depression make her wonder what kind of genetics she has sealed into her son.

The Horse Boy is as eye-opening a film about autism as I've seen, and the family's story is well served via interspersed interviews with autism specialists from Simon Baron-Cohen (that's right: Sacha's cousin), Temple Grandin (herself autistic) and Roy Richard Grinker. Well organized around some suspenseful moments (will the travelers finally find -- and get the help of -- the reindeer people and their shamans?), the film never loses its audience and also never forces us into complicity via melodramatics.

One of the most telling moments, for me, comes when our experts talk about how other societies treat their special people, finding a place for them and a role for them to play in society.  Are these people sick, they ask, or do they simply have a different role to play?  Here, we keep them separate from the bulk of our society; many other countries do not.

Clearly, this couple is not hurting financially, and the realization may occur as you watch the film that most of us could never afford to do anything like this, were our offspring someone like Rowan.  But this is not the main point.  This film should open the door to further research.  As Rupert Isaacson finally tells us, his son was not cured of autism, but his most aggravating and difficult symptoms have now vanished and all three of their lives are so much easier.

How the movie climaxes and then concludes is quietly stunning. The Horse Boy made its DVD debut last month and is available via the usual suspects. Running 93 minutes, it is a more than worth your time.

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