Autism can be a profoundly disabling disease of childhood. As a medical student and a resident in psychiatry, it was a rare disorder; now it reputedly affects 1 in every 150 kids. Autistic children, with varying degrees of severity, may isolate themselves, make repetitive, self-stimulating movements, avoid eye contact, don’t speak, have tantrums and scream uncontrollably.

Autism has proven a frustratingly mysterious disease (which has spurred lots of pseudo-scientific explanations and purported cures). Recently, the journal Nature reported a genetic analysis of autistic people that reveals a variation in that portion of their DNA affecting the way brain cells communicate.

This research will open up new discoveries and treatment options that will surely include the creation of genetically engineered drugs that act on targeted brain areas. These efforts will undoubtedly yield many beneficial effects (as well as untoward side effects). I’d like to add that there are other ways to promote brain connections in the treatment of autism.

For example, the recently published book The Horse Boy, by Rupert Isaacson, is a story about his son Rowan, a charming blue-eyed boy who was diagnosed with Autism when he was two. That’s when he began flapping his arms endlessly, babbling incoherently, obsessively lining up his toys, and often disconnecting with his surroundings and retreating into himself,

One day Rowan crawled under a fence, getting close to a neighbor’s horse. Rupert, watched the mare dip her head submissively and stand perfectly still; Rowan also became calm. Rupert, an avid horseman, was moved to take his son for a horseback ride. Holding Rowan in front of him, they walked, even trotted, and his son became quiet, and then uttered his first word.

Equine Assisted Therapy is an increasingly popular and well-researched treatment modality for people living with various physical and emotional challenges, including autism. There is the physical stimulation of riding which exercises the same pelvic and trunk muscles used for walking, and it improves balance and coordination. Sitting high up on a horse can do wonders for the rider’s confidence, and then there is the energetic relationship between horse and rider. The horse knows when the rider tenses and as their trust grows, they move together with greater confidence.

When Rowan was five, his father, a journalist and human rights advocate, was going to Africa to attend a gathering of spiritual elders and healers. He decided to bring his wife Kristin, a psychologist, and his son. He took Rowan to see shaman who performed their healing ceremonies for him. Afterwards, the boy became more settled and spoke in short sentences.

His father wondered whether there might be a culture that combined horsemanship with shamanic healing; he discovered the Mongols. These tribal people are the direct descendents of the greatest horsemen in history, and it was their traditional healers who gave us the word “shaman.”

In the summer of 2007, Rupert and his family went to Outer Mongolia and Siberia. Riding horseback across the Steppes, they visited shaman and participated in many healing ceremonies. Those rituals were sometimes stressful, but by the time they got home Rowan had made his first friends and was potty-trained. He’s eight years old now and continues to improve.

If Rowan Isaacson had started taking drugs early on, his successes would certainly have been attributed to the miracles of genetic engineering. Instead, we are witness to the magic of therapy that can take place in the presence of horses and shaman, all of whom can help us make new brain connections that move us beyond old limitations.