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Gentle aid for troubling ailments

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing
By Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz
Basic, 288 pp., $26

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism
By Roy Richard Grinker
Basic, 340 pp., $26.95

Bipolar Kids: Helping Your Child Find Calm in the Mood Storm
By Rosalie Greenberg
Da Capo, 294 pp., $26

Nothing is more heart-wrenching for a parent than watching his or her child struggle. When a child is diagnosed with a medical or psychiatric condition, that struggle can turn into a lifelong battle.

"The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog," by Dr. Bruce D. Perry and his writing partner, Maia Szalavitz, is filled with case studies of troubled youngsters. Perry's hope is that these stories will help readers "better understand the nature and power of human relationships." Certainly, this reader empathized with each and every one of Perry's youthful subjects.

There's Sandy, a 3-year-old girl who is the sole witness to her mother's brutal murder. Sandy is also a survivor, attacked and left for dead. Perry is called in to assess her fitness as a prosecution witness. Instead he attests to the damage that's been wrought to her psyche. Perry offers her a way to cope, helping her reenact the brutal assault. Sandy is able to express her terror and ultimately integrate it; that Perry is able to do this for her seems nothing short of miraculous.

This is only one of the compelling case studies Perry shares. Working in Texas, his rapid-response trauma assessment team is called in to help during the Branch Davidian crisis , in 1993. Perry is immediately thrust into the middle of an agonizing drama. Some children have been freed from the compound, and they draw portraits of the fiery death of their parents and siblings. Perry is convinced they are accurately predicting Davidian leader David Koresh's plans, but his warnings go unheeded.

Every child's story resonates, from that of James, a young patient apparently bent on suicide whose mother ends up having Munch ausen syndrome, to Justin, the boy who is quite literally raised as a dog. Perry makes a powerful case for honing diagnostic skills. And his therapeutic method, a mixture of prescription drugs, old-fashioned talk, and hands-on physical therapy, seems sensible and effective.

I found "Unstrange Minds," by Roy Richard Grinker, equally absorbing . A professor of anthropology at George Washington University, Grinker frames the book with his personal story as the father of an autistic child. But "Unstrange Minds" is only tangentially a memoir. It attempts a wide-ranging study of autism , and its strength is Grinker's own.

There are interviews with parents from Africa, India, Europe, and Asia. The struggles he describes are dual: personal and social. This cross-cultural approach is fascinating. In Korea, mothers of autistic children worry "that their normal children would find it difficult to get married, that no worthy person would ever want to marry the sibling of someone with a mental disability." Why is this a particular worry, beyond a mother's natural wish to see all her children happily married? Because Korean society judges parents on their children's achievements -- and marriage is a sign of a child's success.

Grinker knows that loving an autistic child means redefining success. "I try not to think about what other teenage girls are like -- the ones I see outside our local middle school, gossiping and talking about boys -- and focus only on Isabel. If I compare her to the rest of the world, she seems so impaired. But if I compare her with herself, and consider all the progress she's made, more than any doctor ever predicted, I'm suddenly filled with respect for her."

The parents in this book want only one thing, their children's happiness. And they will fight for it, no matter what the personal cost. It is a goal that is often elusive, especially if your child is prone to severe mood swings. In "Bipolar Kids," Dr. Rosalie Greenberg writes about parenting just such a child.

There are many tips in this book, practical advice on coaxing a child to do homework, clinical advice on how and why diagnoses are made, and even a historical context: Yes, there are plenty of highly functioning famous people who, according to Greenberg, were bipolar. Yet, although she offers a great deal of information about diagnoses and care, I found myself becoming more and more uncomfortable with her central thesis.

In describing the symptoms that a psychiatrist looks for when making this diagnosis, Greenberg points to a child who is emotionally charged or to one who sleeps too much or way too little, but then she adds other examples. Some seemed arbitrary to this reader. By the time I got to coulrophobia she had lost me. For the uninitiated, coulrophobia is fear of clowns. According to Greenberg, "Clowns, the embodiment of surprises, are another source of distress for some bipolar children. . . . It may be that to a bipolar kid, a clown is a surprise on legs -- not to mention a walking assault on the senses." Now, I have a child who doesn't care for clowns, and he doesn't much like the costumed Easter Bunny who hangs out in front of our local candy store either. He's definitely not bipolar. He's not even a garden-variety neurotic. He's a kid. So, although this book may prove helpful for parents convinced that their child has been properly diagnosed, it can also seem maddeningly all-inclusive. For me, that was a fatal flaw.

Naomi Rand is the author of "It's Raining Men."