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Autism and Ableism

May 19, 2010

After a long week and busy weekend, I sat down last night to watch a movie and refuel my batteries.  I’d added a bunch of documentaries to my Netflix Instant queue, and I chose the first one I came to: Born Rich, which depicted the lives of several heirs and heiresses to enormous fortunes.  I made it through the first five minutes before deciding I needed to watch something better for the soul.  This turned out to be a very good decision.

I chose the next film I flipped to; The Horse Boy, directed by Michael O. Scott and produced by Rupert Isaacson.

The film documents Rupert’s family’s journey on horseback through Mongolia.  The purpose of the journey was to take Rupert’s son, Rowan, who was five year old at the time, to be treated by shamans for his autism.  Rowan had been suffering from extended tantrums, was emotionally isolated from his peers and family, and was resistant to toilet training, despite the best efforts of his parents and of medical professionals.

As Rowan got older and Western medicine continued to yield few results, Rowan’s parents noticed that he seemed to have a strong connection with animals, particularly the neighbor’s horse, Betsy.  The state of relaxation Rowan experienced with Betsy, and Rupert’s previous experiences with traditional healing in Africa led him to begin researching ways of combining horses with traditional healing for his son.  A few months later, the family of three was on a plane to Mongolia.

The Horse Boy is beautifully crafted as a documentary.  It’s honest, hopeful, and inquisitive.  But more importantly, I fell in love with the Isaacson family.  Rupert articulated ideas about autism that have been amorphously bouncing around in my mind for a while.

Why does autism have to mean the shutting down of everything?  Why couldn’t it be a gateway into adventure?  Maybe even a gateway into healing?

It’s the same argument I associate with anti-ableism in general.  People with autism don’t have anything ‘wrong’ with them.  That is, it’s not a problem to have autism.  It becomes a problem when individuals or situations require that an autistic person thinks like a neurotypical person. And without autism, global culture would be hurting for a number of creative innovations; my favorites include Pokemon, and some of the most spectacular pyrotechnics performances by the band Kiss.

Rupert is very careful to distinguish between ‘curing’ his son, and ‘healing’ him.  While Rowan’s autism is the cause of his tantrums and emotional isolation, it has also granted him his ability to connect with animals and accelerated learning in certain areas.  At one point, Rupert points out that he is a better father because of Rowan’s autism.  Rupert’s goal in taking Rowan to Mongolia was to ease the aspects of his autism that prevent him from communicating and connecting with people, not to ‘cure’ his autism.

With autism rates on the rise, I hope that the questions Rupert raises in The Horse Boy are met with honest answers, and that Rowan’s unique and triumphant story reaches those in need of hope.

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