(The Focusing Connection Vol. V, No.4)
Nine-year-old Rebecca stared myopically from behind thick glasses, which seemed to match her formal sentences and adult vocabulary. Her giggle, however, was pure little girl when I scotch-taped her fingers, nose, and chin. On the playground she would unpredictably kick, spit, and hit, but in the undemanding safety of the playroom she was usually cheerful and cooperative. Echolalia, and years of rather odd and inept social behavior, had given her the diagnosis of Residual Infantile Autism. And indeed Rebecca was vwary of closeness: her delighted laughter quickly turned uneasy when I looked into her eyes, counting her freckles and searching for giggles behind her ears.
Frightened though she was of intimacy, Rebecca had no fear of touching - in fact, she seemed to have no sense of where she left off and others began. She would bump into people, tread on toes, and intrude into conversations, completely unawares. I guessed that her lack of boundaries might be at the root of her fears: she needed a firmer sense of “this is me and that is you” before she could easily enjoy another’s closeness. So along with the frankly intrusive physical play described above, which helped her stretch her tolerance for intimacy, I constantly described her to herself and pointed out our differences. We counted the shades of blonde in her hair, studied the differences in our fingerprints-handprints, and compared size and shape of hands and feet. (1) Occasionally I asked her, or guessed at, what it felt like inside w hen she suddenly backed off and closed me out. But it was several weeks into the therapy before l saw how I could use focusing processes to help her enhance her sense of self by building a more clearly differentiated awareness of her own feelings.
One day Rebecca’s father accompanied her to my office, carrying the day’s school report, on which frowny faces outnumbered smily faces two to one. Her behavior had been so bad that he was concerned about allowing her to go on the field trip the next day. Rebecca made loud, silly noises and pounded Playdoh as we discussed the problem. Her anxiety filled the room, joining my own as l realized that her father expected me to solve the problem. I thought that Rebecca might be able to help by telling us what she needed.
“What would help you have a better day, Rebecca?”
“Encouragement,” she firmly replied. “And hugs and kisses.” Encouragement it would be. I grabbed some paper and markers.
“What’s your favorite thing, Rebecca?”
“Rainbows.” l quickly sketched a rainbow and wrote “Have a good day” under it.
“What else? I like puppies and banana ice cream. How about you?”
“Dinosaurs, kittens, and rainbow sherbet,” she replied. I drew a slightly lopsided dinosaur and handed the card to her father, who added “Hugs and kisses, daddy.”
As her father left, Rebecca turned to the important stuff of the day - playing. She experimented with blowing bubbles while I folded some more paper and said, “Let’s make a Becky’s Favorite Things book. What do you want to draw first?”
“A bubble!” She burst one on the paper and drew around the pattern of spatters.
“What do bubbles make you feel like inside?” I asked.
“Happy.” Who could argue with that?
“And what makes you feel warm and fuzzy?” She thought a minute.
“Caterpillars,” she said, and proceeded to draw one.
“How about fizzy and tickly?” I asked, pointing to her stomach.
“Dinosaurs.” I didn’t understand but it was, after all, her stomach.
“What feeling should we do next?” I asked.
“Proud. My big sister.”
When she finished drawing, I said, “Now squeeze your eyes shut and taste some rainbow sherbet. Feel it melt in your mouth. What does that feel like inside?”
She was thoughtful for a moment. “Calm and content,” she said, looking mildly surprised.
“Now stand like you would if you were really proud...now warm and fuzzy...and tickly and fizzy.” Rebecca struck inspired and appropriate poses.
“But I want a break now,” she said. “I want to do something else.”
Had her body just had enough, or was so much feeling, even good feeling, somehow more than she could tolerate? Someday I might know. Meanwhile I accepted her need to retreat.
“OK. But what does it feel like in there now?” I asked, pointing again to her stomach.
“Calm and content,” she said.
1. These techniques are adapted from Theraplav as described by Ann Jernberg in Theraplay. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979.
Diana Marder, Ph.D. l6168 Beach Blvd. Suite 265 Huntington Beach, CA 92647