When I first saw six-year-old Pieter, I noticed both his huge, inquisitive eyes and his deep, troubled frown. Pieter is prodigiously intelligent (Asperger’s syndrome was diagnosed two years previously) and also easily becomes very anxious. Over the past few months, he had become highly fearful that something terrible was going to happen, with the effect that he no longer wanted to go to school or to sleep at night. On most nights during the previous fortnight, after he did eventually fall asleep, he had been waking in a state of extreme terror and would cry and shake for hours at a time. The next day he had no recollection of this or of his parents trying to calm him.
I had been told that Pieter was deeply affected by the death, six months earlier, of his beloved grandmother, who had lived with them for almost all Pieter’s life. Shortly afterwards, one of their two dogs had had to be put down after getting injured. Pieter began obsessively asking questions about death and about what happens after death, coming up with some wild imaginings of his own, such as coffins gradually disintegrating after burial and bodies falling through the dark earth. He had become increasingly withdrawn, both from his parents (whom he would pummel and push away in a rage, every time they tried to show him affection) and from his beloved cat and remaining dog. Always prone to obsessions and habits, he had started to develop more, most noticeably blinking almost non-stop whenever he started to feel particularly anxious. He couldn’t let go of any topics that worried him, obsessively returning to them time and again. This had been a particular difficulty at school.
At our first session, he walked around picking up objects and looking at pictures, asking questions about everything that interested him, entranced if that led to a story. His tendency to home in on anything disturbing quickly became apparent. In answer to his question about some coloured pieces of glass in a jar, I had told him that they were found on a beach, washed up by the sea, and were probably bits of broken bottles; he instantly looked anxious and asked how the bottles had broken. Would any of the fish in the sea have been hurt? Could people have cut their feet if they had trodden on them in the sand? I showed him how smooth the glass had become over time, with no sharp edges, and distracted him by asking how he liked to spend his time. Pieter told me about things he liked to do, which mostly involved his family. He didn’t really have friends at school and kept returning to the fact that a girl in his class had had a birthday tea and didn’t invite him. Every time that memory came back to mind, he started the blinking. I got us talking about our favourite walks in our local area and Pieter enthusiastically described the amazing clouds that he and his mother had seen one summer day, when they had been at the top of a hill we both knew; the clouds were moving so fast that it was as if there were a new sky every few minutes. I suggested what fun it was to notice how things can change so quickly and how interesting it is to think that nothing in life ever stays the same.
Changing the feeling
After that, it was not difficult to get him to notice how, each time he put his mind on something different, it changed how he felt. Because children on the autistic spectrum are very literal, I mentioned specific occasions he had talked about, as a way of demonstrating this to him: an enjoyable time when he had visited his aunt, who had a horse; a frustrating time when he had not been able to get his work finished at school; the delightful time when he had seen the special sky with his mum. Each time I changed the circumstance I said, “As you imagine this, are you feeling different from just before?” He agreed that he was, that when he switched his mind to the new ‘picture’ the old one faded, and the feelings with it. To help him sleep, we practised how, in bed at night, he could remember that exciting day on the hill with his mum and imagine the warmth of the sun on his body and how it relaxed every muscle, and how his breath was like the slowly fluttering breeze, and how interesting it was to see the clouds change so quickly from one moment to the next. By this time, his shoulders had relaxed, his hands were soft in his lap and his breath was moving calmly in and out.
Before Pieter left, I suggested – as I often do with anxious children – that he make a big ‘worry pot’ out of the plasticine that I keep in my therapy room. He made a small blue pot to store all his worries and fears in at bedtime – checking several times that the lid fitted perfectly – so that he didn’t need to think about them while he went to sleep.
I learned from Pieter’s mother that, in the days that followed, Pieter made more eye contact with people around him and he was blinking far less. He drifted off to sleep immediately every night, using the skills he had learned, and had had the idea of making a fierce lion to guard the worry pot whilst he slept. He still had night terrors on many nights but they didn’t last as long. His mother told me, at this point, that Pieter had a recurring nightmare: bad people broke into the house, enveloped a person or a pet in a big blanket and started to drag them away. Clearly, Pieter’s waking fears about losing loved ones had translated into nightmares – and now he feared the nightmares, which caused them to recur. (1)
Plasticine to resolve trauma
Mostly I use the rewind technique – as taught by the Human Givens approach – to resolve traumatic memories. The technique involves relaxing people deeply and then guiding them back and forth through the traumatic event (or nightmare) but in an emotionally dissociated way, as if viewing themselves viewing the event in fast forward on a DVD machine or rewinding quickly through it. In Pieter’s case, however, I thought it unlikely that I would be able to relax him deeply enough to do this successfully and that, therefore, the chances of embedding the fear response more deeply, instead of neutralising it, were too great. Knowing, however, how entranced Pieter was by stories and how quick his imagination, I decided to deal with the nightmares in a different way, without ever referring to them directly.
At the start of our second session two weeks later, I took out the plasticine and suggested we mould a family and make up a story about them. We created, on a table, a pretty valley and modelled adults, children, all sorts of animals, trees, plants and streams. Then I suggested that some strange and unfriendly creatures might turn up and asked Pieter what he wanted them to look like. He modelled them as ‘aliens’, in black and white, and gave them four long arms each. I told Pieter that they were attacking the peaceful valley and he got deeply into the story, enthusiastically having them break trees in half and tear up the plants and throw them all over the valley. He then had them dig a huge pit and hurl the family into it, covering it with earth. I quickly suggested that help was at hand from some local farmers, and we made them out of the plasticine, arming them with pitchforks. Clearly relieved that the sudden mayhem was about to stop, Pieter made one of the farmers into himself and remained utterly engrossed in the action until I urged him to attack the aliens guarding the dark pit. Suddenly, he looked incredibly scared, jolted back from the table and turned away. “I don’t want to play this anymore,” he said. “Why not?” I asked. He mumbled that he wasn’t sure and I saw him starting to blink.
I just knew that it was crucial for Pieter not to come out of his story trance at this precise moment. Every time he relived his nightmare, he no doubt woke at the very point when the action got too scary to face, thus preventing the emotional power of the image, which matched his fear of death, from being properly deactivated. So, trying desperately to keep him in the action, I said, “You can’t abandon this poor family like this!” Seizing the only thing to hand, which was the lid of the plasticine tin, I cried, “Here – let’s throw the aliens into this big horsebox!” Eagerly, Pieter scooped up the aliens, ‘disarmed’ them by wrapping their long arms around them in knots and threw them into the ‘horsebox’. Once they were carted off to a faraway place (the other end of the table) behind a hill (the plasticine tin) and guarded by the other farmers, Pieter could free the family, bring them back from their dark place and restore order and happiness to the sad valley. When he stepped back from the table and from the story and consciously saw the tranquil scene (happy people in the valley and the aliens far out of reach), a huge smile came over his face – the first I had seen from him. He sighed deeply and his whole body relaxed.
This session marked the end of Pieter’s sleepless nights. His rages against his parents stopped and he became happier, more affectionate and played with his pets again. He also stopped not wanting to go to school, where he has continued to find it easier to leave unpleasant incidents behind him, instead of harping on them. His teacher, having noticed the change and how much more cheerful he has become, is very intrigued to find out more about this method that has made such a big difference to Pieter’s wellbeing.
(1) Griffin, T and Tyrrell, I
(2004). Dreaming Reality:
how dreaming keeps us
sane or can drive us mad.
HG Publishing, East Sussex.
This article was first published in the Human Givens Journal