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Book Review: Strange Son: Two Mothers, Two Sons, and the Quest to Unlock the Hidden World of Autism by Portia Iversen

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Dov Iverson was 18 months old when diagnosed with severe autism, according to Strange Son. This developmental disorder left him without the ability to interact with himself and the outside world. The Iverson family was devastated. They faced the terrible sadness of raising a dearly loved son with whom they could not communicate in any meaningful way.

In his early years, Dov’s room was filled with playthings that would fascinate a normal child. Dov preferred sitting with his head turned to one side, staring vacantly upward flapping his hands tirelessly, or flicking his fingers at the side of his face (stimming). At other times he would chase around his room, or run through the house, making high-pitched shrieking sounds, never tiring.

When Dov was three, the family went to the Jersey shore. Dov still wasn’t talking. Over and over the young boy would splash his hands through a small puddle, or sit spinning the wheels of a toy truck, his eyes staring into space. When he was not running aimlessly on the beach, “Dov put his ear to the sand and listened to the ground…!”

Author Portia Iverson and her husband Jon sought the help of the most renowned specialists. They turned to books, hunting for any glimpse of hope to help them break through to their son’s mind. But experts and research told of limited and somewhat questionable results. Communication appeared hopeless.

Through the National Autistic Society of the U.K., Iverson learned of Soma and her son Tito in Bangalore, India. Like Dov, Tito was severely autistic, yet Soma had made startling advances with him. Tito could not talk, but Soma could communicate with him using a very simple board on which the alphabet was written along with numerals. Tito communicated so well that he spelled out beautiful lines of poetry that eventually were published.

The Iverson’s brought Tito and his mother to the United States, where Soma began her systematic method with Dov. Just getting the boy’s attention and keeping it was difficult, but Soma was determined to work her miracle. She would wave the letter board in front of Dov’s upturned eyes, sometimes touching it against his nose, while incessantly questioning him about something she’d just read to him. Dov began to respond. It was amazing that he could spell out an answer while not looking down at the letter board. How had he learned the alphabet?

Iverson carefully studied Soma’s technique until she, too, could communicate with Dov. The two women identified reasons why Soma’s method worked. Nerves from each of the two hemispheres of the brain are connected to opposite sides of the body. Soma sat on Dov’s right side. She talked in his right ear. She prodded him by touching his right knee or shoulder. But she always held Dov’s left hand still, when it began disrupting as he pointed to the alphabet letters with his right. This technique seemed to keep one half of the brain from interfering with the other.

Strange Son is not just a fascinating read; it is the story of the miracle Iverson hoped for when faced with Dov’s debilitating diagnosis. The book is highly educational. One learns that severe autism leaves a human brain wired incorrectly to body senses, if wired at all. It explains the excessive running and stimming of autistic children: a mind expending energy in the only way it knows how.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to frustrated parents who chose to raise a severely autistic child at home. It is a story of hope brought about by the persistence of two loving mothers from opposite sides of the globe.

Strange Son should be read by psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, counselors, and at all costs, by politicians who must provide money for autism research. If a mother can reach her autistic child with a cardboard and a crayon, surely research can build upon this miraculous foundation.

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