Recently, wifey and I watched the DVD of The Horse Boy. It’s a full-length documentary about a married couple whose 6-year-old son is suffering from autism. To over-summarize it, they travel to Mongolia, see some shamans, and the boy is better when they come back – a lot better. He can now go to the potty; he can socialize with kids without his parents’ help; he seems to tantrum less. The book upon which the movie is based spent months on the New York Times best-seller list.
There were wonderful things about this story and this film. Some very impressive scholars appear on film, and they have some great things to say. I could really feel for the parents, especially when they talked about suffering through the autistic tantrums that aren’t like the tantrums of typical kids. You can’t comfort your child, you can’t talk to them…for hours at a time. They talked about the fear of what will happen when he’s older. Yes.
But…knowing that The Horse Boy was a movie and a best-seller was a bit of a spoiler alert for me. Because I knew things would get better for their Rowan. They had to. Otherwise, the book couldn’t sell in the millions. Otherwise, one couldn’t spend the millions to market and distribute even a small documentary.
The movie is well worth your time; it’s beautiful in so many ways. For a moment, the father lost me, when he showed his son organizing dolls of wild animals, and said, “It’s a look into the autistic mind.” I wanted to say, hey Rupert, that’s the autistic mind you live with. That’s not the one I live with. I live with one that can’t organize two shoes next to each other. I live with one that doesn’t speak to us or understand anything we say. (Well, who knows. We get some proactive grunts, I guess.) I’d rather you not make a big public show of knowing “the autistic mind.” What if I showed you a gay man picking out clothes and said “here’s the gay mind; it knows fashion design”? What if I showed you a 6-foot-8 young man and said “this guy must know how to play basketball”? Right, don’t presume you know my kid’s autistic mind.
But I’m sure I sound terrible, because Rupert is mostly great, and sensitive, and clearly he and his family have gone through serious heartache and an incredible odyssey, and I have nothing but respect for that.
As a film, I think The Horse Boy is amazing and at least a little inspirational. I mean, this family journeyed to Inner Mongolia for help! What astounding commitment to their son! What an astonishing story of not giving up hope, right? On some level, The Horse Boy suggests that it happened to them, perhaps it can happen to others? Can anyone credibly fail to see hope as the major theme of this story?
Oddly, the answer to that is the people and experts on camera (sometimes). Again and again, they bring up the notion of acceptance. Acceptance that Rowan may never be “typical,” and that’s not necessarily bad. Acceptance that autism should not be seen as a disease, but as a condition with advantages and disadvantages. At one point, Dr. Dale Rudin, who makes several brilliant insights, says something to the effect that families who accept autism as natural will be happier, and raise happier, healthier autistic children.
Yeah, I’m gonna stop you right there. When your child has zero communication – NONE – acceptance is close to anathema. Look, I don’t claim to know exactly what Rowan’s family is going through. But if the filmmakers want to make this about autism more generally – and if not, they wouldn’t have rolled out footage of five PhDs to tell the audience about autism – they need to show awareness of a real tension between hope and acceptance. Maybe that tension means that parents of autism need to live with a certain cognitive dissonance. Okay, I can understand if that’s the point. In any event, the film of The Horse Boy sweeps the hope-acceptance tension right under the rug, even represses it. And it shouldn’t.
Yes, accepting autism is important. Yes, Dr. Rudin makes a scarily correct point that families beset by autism go through an immense, even debilitating grieving process before they can ever get to acceptance. They have to accept that their dreams when they decorated the baby room are probably gone. They have to accept that when their child is grown, that child will be dependent on others and will be a target for mental, financial, physical, and sexual abuse. And yeah, that acceptance is a bitch. Take it from someone who knows.
But every action to help the autistic child – from reading him a story to singing him a song to taking him to shamans in Mongolia – is an act of hope. Thus, what we’re really talking about is learning to live in a horrible, terrible valley between hope and acceptance. If we want to be clever about it, we could say that families with autism need to accept the valley between hope and acceptance. But the makers of The Horse Boy aren’t that nuanced – and they should at least try to be.
Like the parents in The Horse Boy, wifey and I need to accept our child’s autism. We also need to push away that acceptance 100 times a day to force ourselves to create actions of hope. But that’s hard. That’s driving a car 60mph half the time, and in reverse the other half. And the makers of The Horse Boy don’t recognize that.
Am I imposing something – say, “a tension between hope and acceptance” – that they couldn’t possibly have been expected to articulate? Well, I would direct you to older films, like before the 1960s. They didn’t know terms like “politically correct” or “homophobic” or “African-American.” But many of them were as sensitive as though they did. And others weren’t. That’s what I’m getting at – an intuitive, inherent sensitivity to something terrible. The film was great for what it was. I just wish it had had that.