Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

PSYCHOTHERAPY BEYOND THE FRINGE, continued

In talking with Chester, it became clear that he was both aware of, and open about, his sexual interest in children. And phallometric testing at the time of his admission had clearly shown that he had bisexual paedophiliac erotic preferences. Felicity offered Chester treatment in a biofeedback programme, and he agreed to try it out. Chester also agreed to monitor his subjective feelings and to report regularly how sexually aroused he felt when he thought about children. And Felicity planned a repeat of the phallometric testing before Chester’s release.

The biofeedback programme Felicity was using was based upon some work by a psychologist named Sterman. The basic operation involved attaching EEG electrodes to Chester’s scalp surface at two sites on top of his head, about equidistant from each other and from his ear lobes, and recording and training an increase in one of the electrical activities recordable from this site. Sterman had shown that a specific EEG activity, called sensorimotor rhythm (SMR), was most easily detected from this (C3-C4) site. When and only when SMR activity was detected, the EEG machine was set to provide Chester with a whistling sound which he was told was intended to mean ‘good for you’ — that is, it was intended that he should be ‘rewarded’ when the sound occurred. This was to serve as a discontinuous ‘rewarding’ consequence for any production by Chester’s brain of the EEG activity Felicity wanted to increase.

Sterman had shown that SMR activity in the EEG is a specific kind of brain activity associated with the production of ‘neural inhibition’ by the brain. Neural inhibition can be thought of as a way in which the ‘bare wires’ of the nerves in the grey matter of the brain insulate themselves from one another. There is no specific physical insulation of the nerves in the grey matter of the brain. The nerves lie side by side and transmit electrical impulses along their lengths. This should mean that they would constantly be short-circuiting, or activating each other. If that happened, everybody’s brain would fairly constantly be producing epileptic seizures. The way the brain prevents this from happening is that, when a nerve fibre or bundle of nerve fibres becomes excited, the excitation stimulates the production of an electrical force field of neural inhibition around them which functionally insulates the other close-by fibres from the excited ones. If the brain cannot produce enough neural inhibition, the functional insulation is incomplete, and an epileptic event follows.

The purpose of the biofeedback training procedure was to teach the brain to increase its available neural inhibition by increasing SMR. In this way it might improve its ‘insulation’ function and thus prevent further epileptic activity of any kind. Felicity thought that if his hypothesis about the cause of Chester’s bisexual paedophilia was correct, then a trained increase in his SMR production should be followed by a reduction in his sexual arousal when thinking about children.

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