The inhumanity of shamanic healing

26 Jun

The inhumanity of shamanic healing

‘Laurens van der Post meets Crocodile Dundee’ – Michael Fitzpatrick on Rupert Isaacson and his Horse Boy Method, the latest miracle healing programme for autism.

Rupert Isaacson, The Horse Boy: A Father’s Miraculous Journey to Heal His Son, Penguin 2009.

Michel Orion Scott (director), Rupert Isaacson (producer), The Horse Boy, DVD, 2010.

Rupert Isaacson, The Long Ride Home: The Extraordinary Journey of Healing that Changed a Child’s Life, Penguin 2014.

It was a shock to sit in a fashionable North London bar with an audience watching – without evident protest – a film scene in which the mother of a boy with autism ritually cleanses her genital area with ‘holy vodkha’ on the instruction of a shaman in deepest Mongolia. It is even more shocking to watch as six-year-old Rowan is subjected to what a sympathetic journalist who accompanied the family on their trip to Mongolia describes as ‘what looks to an outsider like child abuse’ (Tim Rayment, ‘The quest for a miracle cure’, Sunday Times 9 September 2007). Rowan is ‘whipped by a shaman – an intermediary between the natural and spirit worlds – and force-fed milk, then held under a noisy drum.’ He undergoes a dramatic behavioural regression: ‘He loses his language and starts to babble. He screams uncontrollably at the sound of a cow, assaults a little Mongolian girl, and bites his father. Getting the distressed child to the ‘sacred waters’- the ‘brain spring’ – means wrestling him there.’ (The film shows only a discreetly-edited version of these events, focusing on the whipping received by Rowan’s parents, film-maker and author Rupert Isaacson and psychologist Kristin Neff, though there is a more detailed account in Isaacson’s books).

When, in the Q&A following the film, I ventured to agree with Tim Rayment’s assessment that this did indeed ‘look like child abuse’, Isaacson responded angrily. He claimed that as a father he had merely followed his son’s lead – and urged other parents of children with autism that they should do the same. But – and this is one of several evident contradictions in Isaacson’s approach – it is clear that, though his son may have shown a spontaneous interest in horses, the initiative to subject Rowan to shamanic healing came entirely from his father.

Isaacson’s latest book records how, since the trip to Mongolia, he has subsequently taken Rowan through similar rituals with shamans in remote regions of Namibia, Australia and New Mexico. He has also established a riding school at his ranch in Texas, offering the ‘Horse Boy Method’ for children with autism, claiming that this achieves ‘miraculous’ healing results, perhaps not ‘a cure’, but dramatic improvement in symptoms. Here is another contradiction. On the one hand, Isaacson believes that autism is ‘not a problem to be fixed’ but is ‘a wondrous way of being’; on the other hand, he presents it as the result of demonic possession, perhaps a curse from his enemies (made during his earlier work as a human rights activist in Africa), or the malign influence of ancestors (perhaps Kristin’s mentally ill grandmother – hence the vodkha douche). For Isaacson, autism is a state of superior enlightenment and special gifts, but it is also a manifestation of ‘black energy’ – evil spirits that require exorcism.

Rupert Isaacson emerges as a father deeply committed to his son, but struggling to cope with the challenges of autism. He is particularly troubled by the difficulties in toilet-training Rowan, by his recurrent tantrums and by his social disengagement. He is unsparing in his account of the day-to-day difficulties of family life with an autistic child (Rowan is now 12) and the strains this imposes on all the family. But though he asks himself some good questions, he lacks the insight to come up with the obvious answers. Thus – ‘how could I be sure this was not all just New Age nonsense on my part?’, ‘Was I a complete fool for doing this – just on some kind of ego trip, and not doing this for Rowan at all?’ and (my favourite, his reflection on the demand from the Chairman of the Shaman’s Association of Mongolia for $125 each for the services of nine shamans) ‘Had I fallen into a nest of charlatans?’ As another hapless father might put it, ‘D’oh!’

As the father of an autistic son, I have no doubt that horse-riding can be a highly enjoyable and beneficial activity for people with autism. It combines physical exertion in the outdoors and interaction with both horses and people in a way that can enhance mood, improve behaviour, encourage sociability. Though we have never succeeded in getting our son on a horse (he refuses to wear any sort of hard hat), we have, like many parents, found much benefit from cycling (with an improvised saddle in a similar position to that used by the Horse Boy) and from trampolining. These activities are considerably cheaper and more accessible for most families than horse-riding – and they do not require any specialist training or expertise. I cannot see any advantage in dignifying these simple activities as ‘bicycle or trampoline therapy’ or any justification for making extravagant claims for their ‘miraculous’ healing powers.

While Isaacson’s claims for horsey-healing are fanciful, his promotion of shamanic exorcism is more worrying. He returns to primitive notions that developmental disorders are the result of evil spirits, the responsibility of malign forces or dead ancestors – or even of parents who must subject themselves to rituals of purification and mortification. Most of the rituals he describes are the familiar theatrical displays of scary masks, trance dancing, chanting and drumming, laying on hands, sucking bones and spitting out fluids. But there can be no justification for subjecting an autistic child to the sort of inhuman and degrading treatment described in his account. Nor can this ill-treatment be justified by the claims that Isaacson makes in relation to Rowan – that these rituals were followed by improvement in his toileting, his tantrums and his sociability. My son made similar improvements as he got older, without exposure to horses or shamans, as have many autistic children.

In his promotion of the cult of the primitive, Isaacson combines elements of Laurens van der Post and Crocodile Dundee. But, as the libertarian anarchist Murray Bookchin observes, this sort of retreat from into mysticism ‘is no trivial matter’: ‘It took thousands of years for humanity to begin to shake off the accumulated “intuitions” of shamans, priests, monarchs, warriors, patriarchs, dictators and the like – all of whom claimed immense privileges for themselves and inflicted terrible horrors on their inferiors on the basis of their “intuited”wisdom”.’ (Murray Bookchin, Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defence of the Human Spirit Against Anti-Humanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism and Primitivism, Cassell, 1995, p98.)

The warm applause for the Horse Boy film in North London reflects the enthusiastic reception received by Isaacson in the British press, where he has won something of a fan club: ‘With his long blond hair, biker jacket and distressed jeans [Isaacson] looks like a surf dude’ (Liz Hunt, Daily Telegraph, 6 March 2009) ‘With his flowing blond locks, [Isaacson] looks like a veteran of a 1980s rock band’ (Jessie Hewitson, The Times, 2 December 2012).

This reminded me of ‘a handsome, glossy-haired, charismatic hero to families of autistic children in this country and America’ (Justine Picardie, Telegraph Magazine, 8 June 2002) – a description of Andrew Wakefield, the former Royal Free gastroenterology researcher whose fraudulent research claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism did so much harm a decade ago. (It is scarcely surprising to discover that Isaacson endorses Wakefield – now a neighbour in Austin, Texas since he was struck off the medical register in the UK.)

Back in 2002, Picardie suggested that Russell Crowe could play Wakefield in a movie version of the MMR story; in the event Wakefield fans had to settle for Hugh Bonneville in the 2003 Channel 5 drama Hear the Silence. Now that Isaacson is planning a Hollywood remake of his film, he favours Robert Downie Jnr to play himself in the starring role. Given the popularity in the American cinema of sentimental voyeurism in relation to autism and cosmopolitan condescension in relation to aboriginal societies, the film seems destined for the Oscars. The only losers will be people with autism who will continue to be the object of atavistic fantasies and the targets of promoters of miracle cures.

Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need To Know (2004) and Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion (2009).

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17 Responses to “The inhumanity of shamanic healing”

  1. Sharon McDaid (@sharonf) June 26, 2014 at 19:58 #

    Oh dear Isaacson is back to milk the all-too credulous public with his horsey nonsense! I spoke out about the media acclaim they received for the Horse Boy book years ago and was contacted by the mother who objected to my blog posts as harsh and unkind.

    • lilady June 26, 2014 at 20:46 #

      Mommy Dearest should consider herself fortunate that I didn’t blog about her and her husband’s lame attempts to *recover/cure* their autistic child.

      Cripes, I despise these abusive parents.

  2. Eileen Nicole Simon June 27, 2014 at 00:45 #

    This kind of mumbo jumbo has come about to fill the void of stalled scientific research. I will submit a comment on this for the upcoming IACC meeting, but am responding here because you are a member of the committee.

    A “facilitated communicator” was invited by staff at my son Conrad’s group home to try to make sense of his echolalic manner of speaking. She reported that he told her he had been physically and sexually abused by me, his mother. I was then ordered not to visit Conrad.

    My husband suggested just staying away for awhile, “They won’t kill him.” But they did.

    Informed at best by a few community college courses, staff urged the psychiatrist to increase Conrad’s dose of Thorazine, which she did, to 500mg three times per day. Conrad was found dead in bed on the morning of January 17, 1995. Toxicology revealed a lethal level of Thorazine in Conrad’s blood. Details are on my website, conradsimon.org.

    A “self advocate” on the IACC suggested a year or two ago that “facilitated communicators” could be made available for language-impaired autistic people. NO, professional members of the IACC should long ago have made developmental language disability a primary focus of discussion and research.

    Evidence has been available since the 1960s that nuclei in the brainstem auditory pathway are prominently damaged by asphyxia at birth. Complications at birth are recognized as ominous. Why did Virginia Apgar develop her scoring system in the 1950s? Why did she write a book, “Is my baby all right?”

    Brain maturation did not proceed normally in monkeys subjected to asphyxia at birth. Auditory system damage should have been recognized as an obstacle to maturation of language circuits in human children. I am grateful that at the IACC meeting in April, some discussion took place of the dangers of umbilical cord clamping. I have submitted comments on this subject for the July meeting. Yes, I could be totally wrong, but then provide the evidence that clamping the cord within seconds after birth is safe. And, explain what health benefit is gained by clamping the cord.

    • Science Mom June 27, 2014 at 19:42 #

      What does this have to do with the topic at hand? I.e. abuse of an autistic boy at the hands of his parents?

      • Eileen Nicole Simon June 27, 2014 at 22:05 #

        If autism were recognized as a neurological disorder, there would be no market for shamanic interventions. The “facilitated communicator” who claimed to have interpreted my son’s echolalic speech, was also a shaman. She abused him. She was the reason I was not allowed to visit him.

        But I did visit Conrad one more time. Staff at the house yelled at me to get off the property. Conrad waved goodbye from the front porch, and the last words I heard from him were, ”I love you mom.”

        Two months later he died from an overdose of Thorazine prescribed by a misguided psychiatrist. Conrad was abused by an impostor, staff at the group home, and a psychiatrist, who should have been tried for murder. Staff at the group home were devastated when Conrad died. I am sorry for the grief these young people endured.

      • lilady June 27, 2014 at 23:02 #

        “What does this have to do with the topic at hand? I.e. abuse of an autistic boy at the hands of his parents?”

        It has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic at hand, Science Mom.

        It has everything to do with Ms. Simon’s cord-clamping-fixation.

        I question why Ms. Simon and her husband did not take immediate legal action when they were barred from visiting their child, for a total of five months, because of allegations of physical and sexual abuse by Ms. Simon.

      • Science Mom June 28, 2014 at 00:35 #

        If autism were recognized as a neurological disorder, there would be no market for shamanic interventions.

        What are you even talking about?

      • Eileen Nicole Simon June 28, 2014 at 12:55 #

        My fixation is: the inferior colliculus. This small nucleus in the midbrain auditory pathway is damaged by asphyxia at birth. It is also damaged by toxic substances. Citations to the medical literature can be found on my website, conradsimon.org. I also explain there why I don’t run to lawyers for help.

        I read the article on asphyxia by William Windle in the Scientific American back in 1969, but when I tried to discuss this with our pediatrician, he laughed at me and told me I shouldn’t be trying to read the medical literature. This was an abusive remark.

        My response was to go find more in the medical literature. Librarians at the Harvard medical library helped me more than any pediatrician. Plenty was already known back 50 to 100 years and more ago. The idea is absurd that present-day pediatricians need more training to recognize developmental signs of autism.

        Did I miss the point of Matt Carey’s post? I don’t read books on miracle healing. Aren’t they written because medical experts provide nothing better?

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) June 28, 2014 at 16:15 #

        ” I don’t read books on miracle healing. Aren’t they written because medical experts provide nothing better?”

        If that were true homeopathy would have died out long ago.

  3. Victoria Wingfield June 27, 2014 at 13:34 #

    Perhaps someone ought to investigate Isaacson’s ego a little further. Not only is he claiming to be a hero to all autistic children, he has some very ‘special’ relationships with female volunteers (and with mothers of autistic kids) at his Horse Boy Centre. The man is out of control. I was given this information by a former volunteer who felt she was sexually harassed. Make a Hollywood film about that!

    • Science Mom June 28, 2014 at 14:25 #

      Did I miss the point of Matt Carey’s post? I don’t read books on miracle healing. Aren’t they written because medical experts provide nothing better?

      Yes you have missed the point because you are too busy with your self-indulgent promotion of an unsupported hypothesis. Charlatans taking advantage of vulnerable people should be denounced, not excused because people like you have decided that you think you can do better than experts. For your information, many aetiologies of ASDs have been elucidated. Medical science doesn’t work in a snap you know.

      I read the article on asphyxia by William Windle in the Scientific American back in 1969, but when I tried to discuss this with our pediatrician, he laughed at me and told me I shouldn’t be trying to read the medical literature. This was an abusive remark.

      Given what you are trying to advance and the group that you support, he wasn’t off the mark at all.

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) June 28, 2014 at 16:13 #

        Just to be clear–this isn’t my post. This was written by Mike Fitzpatrick.

      • lilady June 28, 2014 at 23:19 #

        Ms. Simon is accustomed to posting her insensitive off-topic comments on the clown blog, where no *treatment* for autism (castration/chelation/bleach enemas/stem cell transplants in filthy, unregulated off-shore clinics), is too outrageous.

        I’ve viewed the YouTube videos of the loony parents who subjected their child to abusive autism *treatments* and who have operate their *treatment* center in Texas.

        Austin Texas really is the epicenter of autism quackery.

  4. Eileen Nicole Simon June 29, 2014 at 01:37 #

    Autism is associated with many etiological factors: prenatal rubella infection, prenatal exposure to valproic acid, PKU (phenylketonuria), adenylosuccinase deficiency, tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis… What systems in the brain are affected by all of autism’s many genetic and environmental causes???

    Under-connectivity is seen on MRI scans. This implies a failure of maturation. What disrupts maturation? Brainstem damage was found in monkeys subjected to asphyxia at birth, and maturation of the cerebral cortex did not progress normally.

    Autism will not be understood until the brain systems affected during the perinatal period are found, and how subsequent maturational processes are affected. The auditory system should be considered, and I will continue to try to point this out until proof I am wrong is provided.

    • Science Mom June 29, 2014 at 15:56 #

      Autism will not be understood until the brain systems affected during the perinatal period are found, and how subsequent maturational processes are affected. The auditory system should be considered, and I will continue to try to point this out until proof I am wrong is provided.

      You may wish to tell autism researchers that they are wasting their time with prenatal neurological development since you have all the answers being the “expert” you are. Furthermore, you have been shown to be wrong with regards to cord-clamping does not cause asphyxia but here you are beating that dead horse still. Not every post is about you and your idée fixe.

  5. ankee June 29, 2014 at 20:40 #

    Reblogged this on Anke's and commented:
    I’m speechless. Evidently Haringey Autism, a charity I have contact with, has invited parents to a talk by the father of an autistic boy who advertises shamanic healing rituals for dealing with autism. This blog post is the reaction from a parent who was there.

  6. Dr Mitzi Waltz June 30, 2014 at 15:42 #

    I’m willing to suspend some judgment when it involves people who are actually part of shamanic cultures looking to that direction for support (e.g. it wouldn’t surprise or shock me that a rural Mongolian might see a shaman if they have an autistic child, it’s not like there’s anything else on offer in Mongolia outside Ulan Bator).
    It’s also pretty common for people to accept more than one explanation for autism, even when these are in conflict–if one of the explanations comes from spiritual ideas, much as you or I might think it’s barmy, we have to meet people where they are and try to help them move on in a way that’s respectful to people with autism. Sometimes there are ways to use these ideas to advance a more scientific approach, e.g. it’s not a giant mental leap from ‘ancestral curse’ to ‘inherited DNA’, although one of these concepts is obviously more perjorative than the other! Don’t mind therapeutic horseback riding either, and since the comparator Isaacson was using when he started down this road was ABA, maybe the shamanic stuff actually seems less invasive. Although that’s really no excuse for all the rest…
    Anyway, I’ve written about this before: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228960802581511?journalCode=wrdh20
    He strikes me as someone who has found a willing market to exploit more than anything else, which is the case for most of the other “new age” hucksters I’ve seen in the autism world.

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