So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son, by Rupert Isaacson

Note; the "contest" where you can suggest books for me to read and review, is still ongoing; I am still collecting suggestions. In the meantime, here is another suggestion for you.

If all you want is a fun read, this book could do ya, though you’d have to pretend it’s a novel, which it isn’t. The premise sounds so bizarrely audacious. An autistic, American boy suddenly becomes calmer and more communicative in the presence of horses, so his father decides to take him riding for several weeks. In Mongolia and Siberia. In order to go meet and be healed by shamans. And it works. The boy quickly makes friends, becomes toilet-trained, and stops throwing tantrums.

Remembering that this is not a novel, the story is by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming, and it’s important food for thought. I don’t think knowing that the boy makes amazing progress will spoil the story for you; suspense is not really the point.

Of course, a reader may doubt whether shamanic magic can heal anything, much less autism. While I am inclined to believe in magic, I am well aware that entertaining alternative possibilities involves the risk of wishful thinking. But exactly what, if anything, shamanic magic did for the boy, Rowan, is beside my point--and possibly beside Isaacson's point. He treats his son’s experience simply as an example of the possible, and never claims to be able to really explain what happened. The reason I bring all of this up—the reason you should read this book—is not that magic or horses cure autism. The reason I bring this up is because Isaacson very clearly explains that autism doesn’t need to be cured.

Rowan was not a high-functioning little boy. According to the book, one group of experts proclaimed him “cute,” but beyond help. His parents did not give up, but fairly early on they realized that a cure was not what they were looking for. Rowan would always be autistic; autism is part of being Rowan. The point was not to cure him but to heal him.

Did you catch that? In mainstream parlance, Rowan’s autism grew milder for whatever reason, allowing him to participate more fully in life; a partial cure. In his parents’ usage, on the other hand, Rowan wasn’t suffering from autism, because autism is part of him. He was suffering from some other thing that went along with autism, some sickness or wound that could be healed, leaving Rowan a healthy, autistic boy.

This distinction gives words to an intuition I had about my own neurology many years ago. I am not autistic, nor even an Aspie (person with Asperger’s syndrome), though I have a number of Aspie-like traits. But I am something on, or perhaps akin to, the autism spectrum. I have some weird weaknesses (example; I don’t understand division) and some equally weird strengths (readers may recall I am capable of doing my readings for school a year or two ahead of time). When I was a teenager, the experts tried to figure out how to cure me, a process I objected to on the grounds that my weaknesses have the same cause as my strengths, and you couldn’t excise the one without destroying the other—destroying me. Yet I did not object to learning to write legibly, speak clearly, or get my homework done on time, all of which I did a few years later. I made some kind of distinction between a style of mind and a disability. Isaacson found the same distinction independently when he said he wanted his beautifully, and often painfully, odd son healed.

I don’t discount the pain and fear of families caring for autistic people. I don’t discount the vulnerability and sheer pain-in-the-assness of being an autistic person. What I reject is the proposition that how a person thinks and feels, learns, perceives, and socializes are all part of who someone is unless he or she is autistic, dyslexic, or otherwise inconvenient. I reject the way we say a person is a genius, but has autism, as though the thought patterns he or she has grown up with are as incidental as a head-cold. I am entirely in favor of research into ways more people can grow into their full potential as human beings. I'd like to be less limited myself, and my limitations are relatively minimal. What I am not in favor of is equating “healthy” with “normal.”

What Isaacson does in telling his tale is present a tentative picture of how one might think of autistics as real people. Isaacson found, on his family’s journey, that some of the shamans he consulted had showed signs of autism as children, though they showed no sign of disability as adults. Could the role of the shaman be what autistic children in shamanic cultures grow up to do? Is it possible that what we know as autism is actually what happens to potential shamans who are never trained? If true, that need not doom children in non-shamanic cultures; we have our own traditions of people who bridge gaps or go to strange places in their minds. A lot of scientists are Aspies, as are no few artists and mystics. It is well-known that neurotypical children deprived of proper parenting and education can develop severe problems. Maybe autistics just need a different kind of training and don’t get it, since no one is our culture knows what the right training is yet. Maybe the problem is not that nobody knows how to make us turn out normal, but that anyone even tries to make us turn out that way?

I admit I depart from the book slightly in my own speculation, but the possibility that the odd and inconvenient are not broken is such a radical concept that even I, who know from experience that the mainstream ideas of normalcy are hurtful and counter-productive, needed this book to be able to grasp what might be an alternative.

Late in the book, Isaacson quotes an acquaintance as suggesting that autism may simply be a personality type. It’s a radical suggestion that plays much better now that Rowan has been toilet trained, learned how to talk properly, and learned how to not have insane emotional melt-downs whenever something triggers him. One wonders how Isaacson's acceptance of cognitive diversity might developed if Rowan were now growing up to become a man-sized creature of soiled diapers and violent tantrums. Many autistics do precisely that, and Rowan’s story is no guarantee that anything can fundamentally change the number of severely disabled people who need extraordinary, life-long care.

But can we entertain this suggestion anyway? Can we seriously accept the proposition that even if some neurological structure malfunctions for whatever reason, the person who develops as a result is not a mistake?

Isaacson, R. (2009). Horse boy: A father’s quest to heal his son. Little, Brown, and Company: New York, NY.

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