Wednesday, April 15, 2009
A Gallop Toward Hope: One Family’s Adventure in Fighting Autism
By MOTOKO RICH - The New York Times
When Rupert Isaacson decided to take his autistic son, Rowan, on a trip to Mongolia to ride horses and seek the help of shamans two years ago, he had a gut instinct that the adventure would have a healing effect on the boy. Mr. Isaacson’s instinct was rewarded after the trip, when some of Rowan’s worst behavioralissues, including wild temper tantrums, all but disappeared.
Now the publisher of Mr. Isaacson’s book about the journey, “The Horse Boy,” has a similar instinct about the market potential of his story, and is hoping for its own happy ending.
Little, Brown & Company, which released “The Horse Boy” on Tuesday, has a lot riding on its success: the publisher paid more than $1 million in an advance to Mr. Isaacson before he and his family had even taken their Mongolian trip.
Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said booksellers had already placed orders high enough to justify a first printing of 150,000 copies.
“It just touched so many points of interest — helping to heal an autistic child, traveling under difficult circumstances,” Mr. Pietsch said. “Most of all, I felt this was a story entirely driven by the chances you’ll take for love, and I felt, who’s not going to want to read this story when they hear the outlines of it?”
“The Horse Boy” traces Rowan’s early difficulties with “demonic” tantrums, speech delays and incontinence. The only thing that seemed to help, Mr. Isaacson discovered, was riding horses. On horseback Rowan was calm, gave verbal directives and expressed joy.
Then Mr. Isaacson, who had previously written about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa and witnessed several shamanic ceremonies, took his son to a convention of traditional healers. For a few days Rowan improved.
Mr. Isaacson, a travel writer, wondered where he could combine horses and shamanic healing, and landed upon Mongolia. After some intensive Google searching and heated discussion with his wife, Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, the family decided to make the journey. A young filmmaker agreed to record the trip.
Mr. Isaacson also decided to pitch a book about the journey. His 37-page proposal outlined an itinerary and his hopes for Rowan’s healing.
Mr. Pietsch said that it was rare for the publisher to take on what he described as “prospective adventures.”
“Our usual response is, ‘Go have the adventure, and then we’ll decide,’ ” Mr. Pietsch said. In this case he determined “that regardless of the outcome in Mongolia, we thought he would write a very moving and interesting and dramatic book.”
During the auction of the book two years ago, Elizabeth Sheinkman, Mr. Isaacson’s agent in London, stoked interest by linking to a YouTube video of Mr. Isaacson and Rowan on horseback. Ms. Sheinkman went on to sell the book in Britain and 16 other countries.
In a telephone interview from his home near Austin, Tex., Mr. Isaacson said he wrote the kind of book he wanted to read when Rowan’s condition was first diagnosed, showing that even families with autistic children could lead a life of adventure. “I knew if somebody had put out a story like this when I was first facing the diagnosis,” Mr. Isaacson said, “I would have been to a large degree reassured.”
“The Horse Boy” follows the family’s four-week trek through Mongolia, riding on horseback or in a van with leopard-skin seats, meeting with shamans along the way. Mr. Isaacson candidly expressed misgivings about the difficult journey, recounting setbacks when Rowan, who was 5 at the time, exploded in tantrums or refused to get on a horse.
Much of the trip was captured on film by Michel Orion Scott, whose documentary about the experience, “Over the Hills and Far Away,” will be released in September. Mr. Isaacson paid for most of the production costs.
Mr. Isaacson has optioned feature film rights for “The Horse Boy” to Mark Ordesky, an executive producer of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Ileen Maisel, an executive producer of the “Golden Compass.” Mr. Isaacson is writing the screenplay.
In writing about Rowan’s experiences, Mr. Isaacson is careful to avoid the word “cure,” but writes of an amazing “recovery” and “healing.” That has some prospective readers wary. Sharon Fennell, a mother of three in Belfast, Northern Ireland, whose 8-year-old son is autistic, said she had read newspaper excerpts and reviews in Britain, where the book came out last month.
She questioned whether Rowan’s progress could be attributed to what happened in Mongolia or to just typical changes that all children go through. “To make this story more engaging, it has to be portrayed as something miraculous and fantastical, because ordinary, everyday, slow-plodding progress does not read so well,” Ms. Fennell said.
Doctors who have worked with autistic patients say a child can make big leaps in development, and that stories like Mr. Isaacson’s can provide inspiration to families.
“I think we’ve all seen these alternative or augmentative therapies that have done wonders for given children,” said Dr. Sarah Spence, a pediatric neurologist specializing in autism at the National Institute of Mental Health.
But others warn that such examples are not tested by science. Dr. Paul A. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Autism’s False Prophets,” said anecdotal examples of recovery like that in “The Horse Boy” could give parents “false hope” and lead them to spend thousands of dollars trying to replicate an experience without any scientific proof that it would help.
Mr. Isaacson said that he and his wife had used part of his book advance to start a ranch where other autistic children could ride horses. But he added that the approach he chronicled in “The Horse Boy” was tailored to Rowan’s personality.
“The book isn’t really saying that shamanism cures autism or horses cure autism; it’s saying we found a way,” said Mr. Isaacson, who took Rowan, now 7, to Namibia last year to meet again with shamans. “You don’t have to get on a plane and go to Mongolia. It’s just that our particular story was that.”
Mr. Pietsch of Little, Brown said he hoped “The Horse Boy” would find a broader audience. In a brochure sent to booksellers, the book is described as combining “the adventure and optimism of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ with the powerful connection between man and animal that readers loved in ‘Marley and Me.’ ”
Booksellers have responded strongly to the marketing campaign, which included DVDs, YouTube trailers and lunches with Mr. Isaacson. “We feel that it’s really got the best-seller potential,” said Bob Wietrak, a vice president for merchandising at Barnes & Noble.
Janet Bailey, the buyer for Barbara’s Bookstores, an independent chain mostly in the Chicago area, said she had committed to the title “very aggressively” even though she had not read it. She was particularly taken with the book’s cover, which shows Rowan and Mr. Isaacson in a triumphant moment on the back of a horse on the Mongolian steppe. “It’s inspiring and uplifting and it’s about horses,” she added.
To promote the book, the Autism Society of America, an advocacy group, will send representatives to Mr. Isaacson’s readings in several cities.
Mr. Isaacson is already working on a new proposal for a book tentatively titled “The Gifts of Autism.” Mr. Isaacson said that Rowan himself had started to write. “The next film and the next book will probably have a lot of input from Rowan in it,” Mr. Isaacson said.
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