Rupert Isaacson is on stage at the West Cork Literary Festival. He’s talking about his son, Rowan, who has a severe form of autism. He’s explaining how Rowan has improved beyond recognition since his healing journeys and contact with horses.
Then the door flies open, and the 12-year-old appears, jumping on to the stage, where he reads a section from The Long Ride Home, his father’s account of the journey from despair to great hope. Unfazed, he reads with expression, and confidence, and later, helps his father to sign books for the audience.
“That was amazing,” says Rupert, when we meet again in Dublin the following Monday. “The trip to Ireland, and to Bantry in particular, has given Rowan a cognitive leap.
“The Rowan you met in Bantry is not the Rowan of 48 hours earlier. He’s become Mr No Problem.”
All this seemed unimaginable when Rowan was a toddler. Then he had no speech and little cognition, he was incontinent, and his ferocious tantrums left his bewildered parents reeling.
“I spent two years in despair,” says Rupert.
“Given a diagnosis of autism you grieve. You are saying goodbye to your dreams.”
Things started to change when Rupert discovered Rowan had an affinity to horses. He rode at home in Texas, with his son in front of him, and it was here, in the saddle, that Rowan began to speak.
After a trip to bushman healers in Mongolia, Rupert formed the Horse Boy Foundation, helping other children with autism, the way he had helped Rowan. Further healing journeys followed.
There was a trip to Australia, and another to the Navajo reservation. There was some regression between trips, but each one boosted Rowan forwards in very tangible ways.
He learned maths, understood theory of mind, and finally, became able to hold a real conversation.
Happy as this makes Rupert and his wife Kristin, it’s helping other families through Horse Boy Learning — learning through nature — that has brought the most satisfaction.
“The secret of human happiness is service,” he says. “You help others and everything transforms. I don’t know a single person in service who is not pretty fulfilled, no matter how they are financially.”
At New Trails in Austin, Texas, the Isaacsons help people with ADHD, bi-polar disorder, depression, and anything else to do with the nervous system. And they work with whole families. There’s a complex system of learning, but it’s the place that’s important.
He says: “90% is environment. If everything is as naturalistic as possible, and you have the right ethic you will get a long way, whether you work with horses, surfboards or chickens.
“Children learn when they’re outside bouncing on a trampoline; they learn splashing in the water or chasing the ducks. The ethic is always to follow the child.”
Isaacson has been busy teaching others his methods. Irish parents can now avail of the Horse Sense programme through ChildVision in Dublin and St Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville, Co Cork.
Back in Texas, Rowan loves his life. After breakfast he lets out the ducks, then the school bus arrives in the form of Bessie, the horse who started it all. He rides up to New Trails, where he spends three hours alone with the staff, learning about the theme of the week.
At lunchtime other families appear. Rowan might hang out with them, learning numeracy and literary stuff, or he might go on a field trip. This could be diving for pebbles in the river, learning mass and force. The school day done, he looks after all his animals; he has deer, goats, and ibexes. Then he’ll walk home through the woods.
Rupert no longer wants his son to be normal. But he hopes that, if he wants to live independently that he will be able to do so. Meanwhile Rowan has developed a web-based TV series called Endangerous.
“It’s all Rowan’s idea. He largely scripts it; he came up with the characters, like Grumpus Pumpus the space monkey who conducts you to find these endangered animals by fart power. I think this will get sold to a network, but it’s Rowan’s intellectual property.”
Rupert wishes doctors would tell parents of their children’s potential.
“You’re told ‘I regret to tell you your child has autism. It’s incurable and for life, and there is nothing we can do for it.’ It would be more helpful if they said, ‘Congratulations! Your son has a certain genius gene. The challenge and adventure is how we address the deficit. Okay he has no friends, no speech, and he poops in his pants. We have so many success stories and they will tell you where they were at three and where they are now. There’s champagne on ice!’
“Imagine how that would inform a parent’s next 24 months? Because the reality is that autism isn’t a catastrophe. It’s a personality type.”
The Long Ride Home by Rupert Isaacson is published by Penguin at €9.99. Kindle: €4.41