Rowan has autism. He was diagnosed with autism at a very young age, and that diagnosis changed the way that Rupert(Rowan’s father) and Kristin(Rowan’s mother) lived. According to the film, autism would be described as “early abnormalities of the brain or a neurological impairment that influences a person’s ability to view the world in a socially typical way.” Therefore, people with autism have a great attention for detail and have an intense ability to focus on one topic, but cannot process lots of information all at once. Due to the nature of the illness, autism affects people in varying degrees, and thus there are varying definitions of how the illness is described and can be treated. In the film, Rowan’s symptoms ranged from unexpected temper tantrums, isolation, difficulty in communication, and delayed cognitive skills.
However, he found paradise in animals, and especially horses. A mutual and profound connection to animals that gave him the ability to deeply relax, converse, and connect. Rupert and Kristin tried all sorts of treatments(medicine and therapy sessions) for Rowan’s autism, but with no real success in anything. Rupert (given his background living with the Bushmen in South Africa and their shamanistic healing powers), researched and found that Mongolia had a strong connection with horses and horseback riding, as well as shamanism being the state religion.
They traveled mostly by horseback, sometimes by car and, shamans from all over Mongolia came to see Rowan and treat him together. All understood he was ill, and had much confidence that they could treat him. They dressed in various layers, all adorning some sort of metal jewelry, bird feathers, and various head wear. Some in silk garb and some in animal hide, they wore head pieces with braid-like extensions that would cover their face, and various pieces of cloth that would flow downwards from their belt. Some would talk to spirits, some would ring bells, some would beat on drums and sing to the spirits. There were scenes in which Rowan was embraced and playing with the shamans, and scenes where Rupert and Kristin were literally whipped and stripped of their bad energies. The Shamans were then able to figure out that Kristin had a family member that was haunting and negatively affecting Rowan. Kristin then explained that her grandmother was manic and depressive, and was mentally ill while she was alive.
Shortly after Rowan then met Tomo, the son of the Mongolian travel guide, and embraced him and called him his “Mongolian brother.” He never interacted with anyone his same age the way he did with Tomo. This became the beginning of his spiritual journey. Shortly thereafter, they reach an indigenous group called the Doukas, and they are known as the reindeer herders. There were definite ups and downs of Rowans symptoms, but the shamans were always patient, kind, and confident in treating Rowan.
In the end of the film, we see that Rowan’s autistic challenges were overcome. He no longer has temper tantrums, became potty-trained, plays with kids his age, is able to talk to people, and most importantly learns to ride a horse by himself; giving himself the freedom he needs to be a growing child soon to be an adult. He is not cured by all means, but his progress cannot be undermined.
Through the film, I was able to see that the Mongolians and shamans they encountered were very in tune with their surroundings, nature, and particularly the animals that resided in their environment. The ability to see a bad spirit surrounding a person and the ability to understand what the specific spirit is doing to a person is naturally understood. Many cures and treatments followed a spiritual cleansing symbolized by a physical cleansing. These would range from physical whippings to ingesting various liquids to cleanse the body. There would be occasional prayers made by Rupert and Kristin to the spirits to help continue the cleansing process of the bad spirits. The audience realizes that the animals become a sort of medium for Rowan to understand people and most importantly himself. The most important realization that I made was that Rowan was constantly included in all of his treatment process with his parents and the shamans. They were always involved and never secluded, and this is the key. His integration with everyone in the Mongolian society helped Rowan become a part of society, and this helps him start to understand the meaning of societal values and relationships.