Background to my interest in teaching children with autism

PSYCHOTHERAPY BEYOND THE FRINGE, continued

He asked Kevin about the ‘zits’ which covered his face – they were blotchy red marks like a host of pimples. Kevin said that they were a neurodermatitis, and that they had been with him from childhood. Many physicians had been consulted about them. They had tried everything, and nothing had worked in the smallest degree to get rid of the blemishes. Felicity asked if Kevin would like to get rid of them. With scepticism approaching scorn, Kevin said he would like to, but surely Felicity was not stupid enough to imagine that he knew how to deal with a physical problem which physicians could not cure. Felicity chuckled with mock embarrassment, but suggested it might be fun to try something if Kevin was willing to do a rather long and boring task. Now, that sort of a task was still Kevin’s strong suit – he could keep at the boring, the irrelevant and the immaterial for donkey’s years, as he had already demonstrated by getting himself all the degrees after his name.

Kevin was asked to spend two-hour blocks of time staring at his face in the mirror. The ‘rules’ were that, although he could blink his eyes to lubricate them as needed, he was not to look away from his face for anything, even for a fraction of a second. He must continue to stare at his nose (the centre of the face) for the full two hours at each sitting. Of course, he wanted to know what that would do. Felicity said he didn’t know whether or not it would have the desired effect, but it ought to result in extinction of Kevin’s habitual perceptual ‘self-image’ by using ‘conditioned inhibition’ or fatiguing it out – this idea will be explained more fully in some stories fabricated in the section on schizophrenia.

Since Felicity was not particularly reassuring or detailed in what the effects of this homework might be, it seemed at first that Kevin would not participate. Of course, Felicity took the opportunity to congratulate Kevin warmly on his assertiveness in turning down this request. However, Felicity did say that, just in case Kevin decided to do the task, Kevin ought to be warned that he would probably experience some strange perceptual phenomena while staring in the mirror. Although Felicity did not know what these might be, after about thirty minutes, and thereafter at about ten minute intervals, Kevin would likely experience some strange changes in what he saw in the mirror – his face might seem to disappear, it might look distorted and it might look absolutely weird or even terrifying. However, it would ‘correct’ itself back in a couple of minutes if he just ‘rode out’ the experience. That did it. Kevin had to try this thing out to see if Felicity was or was not at least within arm’s reach of sanity. If such strange things could happen, Kevin had to experience them. If they did not happen, he would at last be sure that Felicity was the quack Kevin was beginning to think he was.

They did. And that captured Kevin’s curiosity enough to keep him at the task. He reported that his face did change every so often, and at about the intervals Felicity had suggested. At first he could not see his face. Then his face became grossly distorted, although he was at a loss to describe just how. But he was fascinated with the kaleidoscope of images through which his face changed during these periodic intervals in each mirror gazing episode. He even began to look forward to each new interval to see what it might bring. And he enjoyed the anticipation of using his verbal skills to try to tell Felicity what he looked like in each.

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