Tag Archives: Baron-Cohen




The second subject that my mothers’ group asked that we discuss is that of “habits”. When I use the word “habit”, I mean a pattern of behavior that is hard to break even when you try very hard. We usually refer to the patterns we want to break as “bad habits”, but of course there are good habits, too. I like to use the principles of nonlinear systems theory to understand the establishment and maintenance of habits. That is not as complicated as it might sound.

Nonlinear systems theory says that “organization”, or patterns, emerge from the interactions of the component parts of a system (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In a family system, this would mean that when family members (parents, children) interact with one another, they create particular ways of behaving (patterns of behavior) that include characteristics of the individuals involved, their home environment, and the time (of day, month, and year). For example, what Sander calls the infant’s first organization, the diurnal sleep cycle, is established through the repetition of small caregiving acts – nursing, burping, bathing, and changing – that the caregiver and infant experience together, as they are repeated in the same order each day over and over again (Sander, 2008). When the baby grows older, the family establishes bedtime routines that parents and children tend to follow every night. Of course these rituals change with the age of the child and the time of the year, so that during school vacations the patterns usually loosen. Whereas families can typically describe to you their bedtime routines, they are usually not aware of the powerful significance of routines in their lives until something happens – houseguests, illness, a family trip – that disrupts the routine. It is then that the family recognizes the role of these patterns in the coherence of family life.

There are two other dominant characteristics of habits. The first has to do with motivation, or intention. Why would anyone intend to establish a bad habit or be motivated to maintain it, you might ask. Well, there are actually many reasons, and not surprisingly, most of them are out of awareness. Some of them are “non-conscious” in that they were never represented in language or other symbols in the brain and most of the time never will be. They usually have to do with efforts to escape perceived threat and are generated by the central nervous system in parts of the brain below the cortex (thinking part of the brain), such as what we refer to as “fight or flight”. You may wonder how fight or flight could qualify as a habit since it doesn’t happen all the time. I would respond that in highly stressed families, individuals feel threatened much of the time, and they develop a “habit” of reacting with aggression or running away (the flight may be a form of withdrawing or tuning out). People make up reasons to explain to themselves why they are behaving that way. For example, “I have to get him to school!” or “I am too tired to deal with this right now.” Even more insidious, they make up stories to explain why the other person (these “habits” originate in relationships) is causing them to behave that way, for example, “He is a little monster!” (Fonagy et al, 2005). Continue reading

Child’s Play


.Today I am writing about children’s creative play. I was inspired to do so by a unique construction hanging down the stairwell that leads to my office. It was placed there a couple of weeks ago, but I have left it there because I am so fond of it. It is – as a young observer called it – “a wad of tissue on a string”. It is actually facial tissue tied with colored yarn, but he is mostly right. This construction was created by another child, and for her I think it had the meaning of exploring my spaces, taking me over aggressively but also lovingly, as she dangled it over the top of the banister and let it sink slowly down three floors to rest on the carpet of the cellar level. In the small area at the bottom of the stairs, she then imagined having an “office” of her own, claiming the wooden ledge as her “desk”. Then to clearly establish her hegemony, she carefully wrote a sign: “Please do not take this down. Thank you.” Asking me how to spell my name, she finished off her notice with the name, “Alex Harrison”.

The magic of this construction is not in its ingredients – tissue, colored yarn, maybe a little tape – but in the imagination that turned these humble household objects into a powerful narrative. These objects cannot compare with the complicated electronics that my little patients are usually so fond of. Even the other toys in my office – dolls, blocks, vehicles, etc. – do not have quite the potential of these objects. Other children agree. All of them have noticed the tangle of colored yarn and wondered what was at the bottom, marveled at the mysterious meaning of the object and its relationship to me.

The boy who referred to it as “a wad of tissue” is very adept at games on computers and i-phones, even at his young age. In spite of this, he spent a whole session with me raising up the “wad” on its yarn pulley, untangling the tangles and considering the effect of the tangles on its smooth sailing, lowering it again, discussing with me the trajectories of each lowering and wondering what was influencing it to move further to one side or the other. Considering the difficulties this child has disentangling himself from his mother and negotiating transitions and the “ups and downs” of life, I thought he and I were doing just what we needed to be doing to make him stronger.

As he and I huddled together in our explorations, I was aware of feeling happy and engaged in my work. The feeling is a kind of playfulness, a letting go of the constraints of reality and entering – with a companion – into a magical world of rainbows (colored yarn), wads of tissue (gift wrapped presents), castles in the air (three level staircase), and forbidding dungeons (the cellar at the bottom of the stairs). Of course, the real “work” lies in facing the monsters in the dungeon together (the child’s fears and problem behavior), but in order to conquer those monsters you have to find them, and you find them by creating this magic world with a trusty traveling companion.

The world of rainbows and dungeons is obviously not exclusive to child psychotherapy. That is the magic of it – it is the possession of every child. But it has to be exercised, practiced, and that means putting away the computer, the i-phone, and the television, for long enough to enter this other space stay awhile.

The little boys in the photograph of this posting are finding this play space in the dirt of the playground. The children at the preschool found it in the pirate play and in the hunt for bears. The girl in my practice found it in her creation of the “office” at the foot of my stairs and the magic wad on pulleys that led to it. When the child is developing the capacity to create this world of pretend he/she is simultaneously building an internal capacity for flexibility, for impulse control, for empathy. That is what the pediatricians and scientists tell us from their observations and experiments (Baron-Cohen, Fonagy, Slade, Winnicott, to name a few). It is also what I know from my experience.

Sometimes it is hard to explain that to parents who understandably want a “solution” to a problem behavior – a method for shaping behavior, a behavioral strategy. Of course, I understand this. But behavioral strategies that address a discrete behavior do not always generalize; they cannot grow the brain in the elemental and natural way that pretend play can do. Now, I am in favor of anything that works, so I do support good behavioral therapies. Yet, I am always aiming in my work with children for opportunities to scaffold the growth of the important developmental capacity for imaginative play, and I am always delighted when I can awaken the child in myself to join my young patients in creating a “pretend” solution of their own.


Baron-Cohen S (1994). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theories of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist EL, Target M (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of Self. New York: Other Press.

Slade A (1994). Making meaning and making believe: Their role in the clinical process, in Children at Play, Edited by Slade A, Wolff DP, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 81-107.

Winnicott DW (1971). Playing and Reality, London: Routledge.


Photograph by Ginger Gregory