Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

PSYCHOTHERAPY BEYOND THE FRINGE, continued

Given Jack’s ‘normal’ level of conditionability (speed of learning new emotional habits), Felicity calculated that, in the six months allowed him, he should be able to complete work in all three of these areas. He gave Jack a self-administering and self-scoring test to allow him to estimate his participation in a number of common ‘errors of thinking’ by which we all upset ourselves. He gave him a self-administering, self-scoring test of ‘assertiveness’ to help him to locate some of the ways in which he was under-assertive or not standing up for himself and his personal rights. And Jack also completed a Fears Survey Schedule and a few self-administering anxiety tests to help him identify stimuli of learned anxiety and fear to which he was inclined to react with undue arousal. Dutifully, Jack completed the tests as he was asked.

The tests showed that Jack regularly upset himself by making nearly all of the most common ‘errors of thinking’ identified by Ellis. He rarely asserted himself to a ‘normal’ degree in any common life situation. He had learned to over-react with anxiety in ambiguous situations (where his ‘rational’ controls could not work well), in dealing with authorities and in being judged or criticized, in any situation evoking guilt feelings, in situations involving dirt or disorder, in feeling anger of any kind, and in losing control. The picture could hardly have been more appropriate to what the ‘energy test tube’ would suggest as a way to understand Jack’s problems.

On the cognitive level, each of his ‘errors of thinking’ was carefully examined, alternative ideas, attitudes or beliefs were considered, and he was assigned homework to test out the effects of thinking different thoughts (or telling himself different things) if only for just a moment. He quickly became adept at recognizing other self-demeaning and depressing thoughts which were passing through his mind in all sorts of situations where he felt depressed or put upon by others. He even began to notice momentary flashes of anger in some situations at work and while interacting with his parents. He took to logging in a diary all sorts of thoughts he had in a wide range of his life situations. He was impressed both with his own very considerable accomplishments in this task, and with the lift in his mood accompanying changes in how he talked to himself about what was going on, who he was and what he was doing.

In the behavioural area, he was quick to learn to use ‘I’ statements to replace his former, hard-done-by, ‘You’ statements. He mastered and began to use the ‘three-part statement’ in dealing with others, in which he first stated what he had understood from what the other had said, then gave expression to how he felt about it, and finally indicated what he proposed to do about it. He found he related better to those around him, and that he was able to say what he felt, what he wanted and what his needs were. At first, he was concerned about how he and others would react to what he thought of as ‘aggressiveness’. But he soon discovered that others did not seem to get annoyed with his assertiveness, that instead they seemed to respect him for it, and that he himself did not feel scared by his apparent ‘aggressiveness’.

He also began practising ‘in vivo desensitization’ of his reactions to a few repeating life situations. As repeating life situations which upset him, he chose ‘being always the one in the family expected to wash the dishes’, ‘being asked to do extra work in his job’, and ‘being criticized by his boss’. He prepared a list of about sixteen different responses he might use in each situation, grading the responses carefully from the most aggressive to the most under-assertive (doormat-like). He committed the three lists of responses to memory. Then, when the situation recurred, he paused, in his mind ran quickly through the list of responses to that situation, picked the level of response which he thought he would be comfortable giving, stepped down one item on the list (in the under-assertive direction, to be sure he would be comfortable giving the response), and delivered that response. In these initiatives, too, he was delighted to discover that his mood seemed steadily to be improving along with increased energy and vitality.

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