Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

PSYCHOTHERAPY BEYOND THE FRINGE, continued

A Spirited Spirit

Some years later, a lovely professional lady in her mid-thirties was referred to Felicity for anti-stress treatment. June suffered chronically from bronchitis which was complicated by a number of respiratory allergies and repeated bouts of sinusitis — all apparently perpetuated by her high level of bodily stress. The referring psychiatrist was continuing his psychotherapeutic contact with June, exploring her emotional distress referrable to her early developmental life.

Certainly, June was physically weak when first seen. And she was obviously depressed. She spoke very quietly and used precise speech and highly literate language. She was creative and sensitive, delicate and restrained in her movements and very concerned that she do ‘the right things’ at all times. She was easily brought to despair by criticism, and was quick to respond with guilt-motivated apologies or silent attentiveness. In order to avoid criticism, she wanted to achieve perfection — if she could only find out how. She was in all respects the image of the ‘perfect’ woman from the point of view of someone else such as a man. And yet she had never been married, and she had a restricted circle of friends composed about equally of men and women.

Felicity administered some psychological tests to ensure that he understood what was going on in June. The expected findings associated with anxiety and guilt, energy/anger-inhibition and perfectionism were present. But the Rorschach ink-blot test produced a most unusual pattern of responses. On this test, she demonstrated a pattern of responding which would suggest a widespread defensive vigilance as though every area of her life was replete with conflict and guilt, requiring constant self-protective caution. This vigilance did not appear to be merely a result of her perfectionism. Instead, it seemed to represent an early-learned helplessness in the face of any stressor, which almost forced her to exercise cautious control to avoid coping directly with life’s situations in favour of crippling preoccupations with minor issues. In theory, this should result in an inability to cope with stressors, thus maintaining high stress levels, and thus continuously depleting her stress resources. This would somehow have to be dealt with before therapeutic changes could be achieved.               This highly efficient, perfectionistic woman felt she was always at fault for not knowing or not following ‘the rules’. Her interactions with her father, in particular, caused her great pain. She wanted to do the right thing, but she thought that everything he said to her was critical, and that he was always right and infallibly able to spot the ‘errors’ she made. But she felt no anger at all.

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