Monday, November 29, 2010

Going Beyond Fragmentation 8 - That In-Between World of the Healthy Psyche

The In-Between World of Communication

Winter scene, Sunday28th Nov 2010
I am a teacher and communication is the very essence of my profession, not knowledge solely.  One can have all the knowledge in the world and be unable to communicate it.  I have taught in some five schools in a teaching career that has now spanned exactly 30 years last June gone.  For three years of that number I have spent teaching young men on the ASD spectrum, viz., teenagers with Asperger's Syndrome.  Those thirty years have been about attempting to communicate knowledge on the curriculum to the pupils before me.  At times I have done that communication badly and at times I have done it well.  Having retrained last year as a Resource and Learning Support teacher, teaching numeracy (maths), literacy and communication and language, has led me to ponder more deeply what exactly communication is.

It would seem to me that relationship or connectedness is an essential part of the communication process.  Today students are no longer docile, unresponsive automata as we were when we were young.  They wish to be heard.  They wish to express their opinions.  In short, they wish to connect as is their basic right as a human being.  Every human being has that basic right - the right to self-expression and the right to be listened to, not just heard!  Back when I was a young lad the teachers spoke with an authority vested in them by their profession solely and we listened and learned - how well we did so is a matter for another post!  Today we speak by the authority of our own authenticity as well as by the authority of our profession.  The two are needed for real communication to take place! 

Teaching an Adolescent Boy with Asperger's

Now I have vividly in my mind a boy I have taught for the past three years from 13 to 16 years of age, and whom I still teach.  I shall call him Brian, but needless to say Brian is not his real name; it is rather a pseudonym to protect his identity.  This sixteen-year old is far more autistic than the other boys in our unit, though like all Asperger boys he has an exceedingly good vocabulary, has a special interest of note which I shan't name lest someone might identify him and he possesses practically all of the significant traits connected with this specific disability.

The Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler first introduced the term autism in 1911. The words "Autism" and "autistic" stem from the Greek word "autos," meaning self. The term autism originally referred to a basic disturbance in schizophrenia, in short, an extreme withdrawal of oneself from the fabric of social life, but not excluding oneself.  However, it is important here to note that Bleuler was studying the mental disease called schizophrenia, not autism as we know it today.  However, I feel that knowing the origins or provenance of a word or theory tells us something about whatever reality that word attempts to describe.

Bleuler also coined the term "ambivalence" to designate one of the major symptoms of schizophrenia, the others being "autism", disturbances of effect (emotion) and association (thought disorders). Ambivalence is a coexistence of two opposing drives, desires, feelings or emotions towards the same person, object or goal. The ambivalent person may be unaware of either of the opposing wishes. Bleuler felt that there were normal instances of ambivalence--such as the feeling, after performing an action, that it would have been better to have done the opposite; but the normal person, unlike the schizophrenic, is not prevented by these opposing impulses from deciding and then acting. Bleuler's schizophrenia differs in terms from the Freudian theories, in which ambivalence was described as feelings of love and hate toward the same person. However, I am going away on a tangent here, and will return immediately to my point, viz., that his notion of the autistioc traits of the patient as referring to the extreme withdrawal of oneself from the fabric of social life, but not excluding oneself. 

Walking the dog - Sunday Nov 28, 2010
Now Brian is not extremely withdrawn from the social fabric of life, but he is to a fairly large extent when I compare him to the level of interaction with the social fabric of life exhibited by the other students in my care.  Needless to say, what I am writing here is not scientific whatsoever and is just some ideas that I am trying to sort out in my own mind as a practising teacher.  These thoughts are merely the result of my reflecting on my livewd experience and practice.  I spend some five classes per week teaching Brian Foundation Maths for the Junior Certificate and he is able to manage this subject quite well, though I have to keep him very much on task.  We do communicate about music and all the bands he loves, how he is feeling on a particular day, or occasionally we reflect on some misbehaviour with another student or even SNA or teacher.  There are times, measurable in some few minutes when Brian's world and my world overlap in some middle space, that is the "in-between space" or "in-between" world of my title.  Asperger Boys (by far the greater percentage of them are male) sometimes call themselves Aspies while they call the so called "normal" boys by the title Typies (typicals, I think, and pronounced like "tippies")

And so we return to what I mean by the "in-between" world of communication.  I usually draw two match-stick figures on the board, one of whom is me and the other the pupil with whom I am working.  I then draw a circle coming out from each stick-figure and allow them to overlap.  This I call the shared space of communication.  In other words, I am diagrammatically representing what communication actually is - an "in--between" world shared by a number of people, in this case two people - teacher and pupil.  Let me return to the words of Professor Levine here for a moment by way of explicitation:

Again, it is essential to understand the mediating role of imagination here. We are not contrasting an "inner" realm of fantasy with an "outer" one of reality; this is precisely the dichotomy that gives rise to the split between Enlightenment and Romantic models of psychotherapy. What Winnicott is saying, implicitly, is that psychic life is imaginal; we live in the imaginative and playful space of experience.
That imaginative and playful space is essentially the overlapping circles coming from my stick-figure drawings, the shared space of communication, the shared space of commonly created reality (reality is not something definable once and for all out there in space - no, it is something we we define together in imaginative communication.  Reality as objectified in precise terms out there would be what Levine calls the Enlightenement school of psychotherapy while the subjectified, almost solipsistic self-created world that is utterly private would approximate to what he sees as the Romantic model of psychotherapy.  Communication, then, is essentially imaginal and because it is co-created by the individuals involved in the communication, it is very much the essence of what we mean by reality.

To be continued!
 (Poiesis, p. 33)

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