While I was originally drawn to this movie because of the focus on an autistic boy (my son is one of the 1 in 91 who are on the autism spectrum, and males are 4 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed as such), as it turns out this movie is as much about autism as it is about culture, family, and spirituality. Rupert Isaacson, a writer and former horse trainer, and wife Kristin Neff, a psychology professor, are the parents of Rowan, whose lives took a drastic turn when after planning for a trip for "Italy", they ended up in "Holland" (see my review for "Getting Your Kid on a Gluten-Free Casein-Free Diet" by Susan Lord). In other words, they were thrown off balance because it is not only difficult to prepare for a child with autism, but the lack of readily available information via traditional sources such as physicians is scant to nonexistent, and when information is provided it takes time to sort through what is accurate and what is not, and what applies to one's child and what does not.
While this film does get into some of the background behind Rowan's diagnosis, and shows the frequent tantrums common to autistic children, it does not discuss in any great detail the traditional care they sought in the medical community nor the alternative biomedical therapies they may have explored which are increasingly prevalent in this space due to the ill-equipped health care system to handle autism, a neurological disorder. While this might disappoint some viewers, the strengths of this movie are that it shows the relationship between father and son, depicts a family which is unified, and follows a family through Mongolia, a country little known to the West.
Midway through the movie, in the midst of singing to his son, Rupert declares: "Well, it's true - I'm a better father because of his autism. His autism forced me to listen to what interested him beyond all else and implemented because I had no choice. I'm glad now that I had no choice. It was tough at the time, but we're on to something good here". He later comments that "We would not be having this amazing, crazy, adventure across Mongolia if Rowan was not autistic. It seems like a curse in some ways, but in many ways it's a real blessing." Despite some of the drawbacks of this documentary, and actions that Rupert and Kristin took with which one might disagree, it is difficult to fight such a positive attitude.
The aspect of this film which will probably shy away some potential viewers is Rupert's pursuit of Mongolian shamen. Because the health care he and his wife pursued resulted in little progress for Rowan, Rupert sought other remedies. After speech delays, Rowan had said his first words while riding bareback on a horse, and after seeing the connection Rowan seemed to have with animals in general (Dr. Temple Grandin provides comments in the film that this is typical for individuals with autism, including herself), Rupert discovered that the one culture which integrates horses and healing is Mongolia. Whatever his initial reluctance may have been to seek such an avenue, Rupert decides to visit multiple shamen throughout the country who he later believes cured Rowan from autistic symptoms such as tantrums (not autism itself).
Kristin, however, comments that "To be honest, I don't really believe in spirits, you know, as actual entities - I think of them more as symbolic entities. My rational mind says, 'What does all this mean?'" She later says "I have no idea if any of it has an effect, or if it's just maybe calling up the focus and the intention for his healing which, in itself could be quite powerful. I don't know how useful it is to think of us as normal and totally healthy and Rowan as the ill one. I think it's way more complicated than that." Along with Dr. Temple Grandin, several other experts weigh in during a 26-minute special features "Additional Interviews with Autism Experts" segment following the film, and one of these individuals would agree to some extent with this latter comment, commenting that most cultures around the world have traditionally found roles in society for those with autism, whereas Western culture has traditionally stigmatized those with autism. The great, hopeful development in recent years is that Western culture is now becoming more accepting of these individuals. Well recommended film.