Saturday, September 26, 2009

Film explores the promise of equine therapy for children with autism

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ask most parents how far they'd go for their child, and the usual answer is "to the ends of the earth." It's a turn of phrase that Rupert Isaacson (pictured) and Kristin Neff took literally.

"The Horse Boy," directed by Mr. Isaacson and Michel Orion Scott, and opening in New York on Sept. 30, is travelogue of sorts. In 2004, Mr. Isaacson and Ms. Neff's 2½-year-old son Rowan was diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder now diagnosed in one out of every 150 children according to the Centers for Disease Control. As Rowan grew, he got worse, as autistics generally do: In homemade footage, Rowan (pictured) is shown becoming a volatile child whose only place of peace, his parents find, is on a horse.

Escaping from his father one day, Rowan ran into a herd of horses. His father was petrified, but the herd's lead horse pushed the other horses away, bent her head to Rowan and began to lick and chew with her lips, a sign of submission. And as the horse responded to Rowan, the boy responded to the horse.

Why would contact with an animal dissolve Rowan's otherwise unbreachable and hysterical behavior? Like most questions about autism, the equine-autism connection is a mystery to medicine. (Similar reactions occur with other animals, such as dogs.) Desperate for some lasting remedy, Mr. Isaacson and Ms. Neff decided to take Rowan to Outer Mongolia, a place that may have given rise to the first horseback riders, and the home of a shamanistic culture in which they hoped to find help.

Few people involved with autism—which can manifest itself in ways ranging from Pervasive Developmental Disorders to the less debilitating Asperger's Syndrome—would expect a miracle cure. In the movie, Rowan suffers setbacks, and makes advances. "The Horse Boy" is about the importance of not losing hope. "Skepticism is healthy," Mr. Isaacson said. "It can also be a safety trap from which you never take a risk."

Mr. Isaacson says he and his wife haven't abandoned western medicine. "It's more about using every tool in the tool box," he says. "Remember, 20 years ago, people thought that acupuncture was 'woo woo.' Now you can get it on your HMO."

Many experts agree autistic kids can benefit from contact with horses, in part because the relationship can be nonverbal. "What's called hippo therapy, I think, can be helpful for some kids," said Dr. Geraldine Dawson, founder of the Center for Autism at the University of Washington and now the chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks (which wasn't involved in the film).

Mr. Isaacson and Ms. Neff are now running their Elgin, Texas-based New Trails Center, which offers home-schooling and equine therapy for autistic kids. Autistic kids who have participated have become more communicative, he says. The couple's camps try to recreate some of their Mongolia experience: "living under canvas, the horses picketed nearby, something of a journey each day, the whole family involved."
"The Horse Boy" will raise awareness about the disorder, said Peter Bell, executive vice president for programs and services at Autism Speaks, who added that both the movie and its subjects serve as metaphors for what many autism families go through. "They go to extremes," Mr. Bell says. "This is why autism is so frustrating for so many people, that here aren't a lot of answers. And when they when there aren't any answers, you go out looking for them."