Thursday, January 26, 2012

Autism in France

A friend, a doctor in the UK, wrote me this:

Just back from France where I was horrified to learn that autism is treated only by psychoanalysis there because it is believed to be caused by lack of maternal bonding in the first year of life.  I almost hit a senior pathologist as he held forth.  Medicine isn't always as international as we would like it to be.

Could it be, I thought?  So I did a little Google searching on the topic. The first item was an article from The Lancet in 2007.  Are you ready for this?

In France, autistic children who have psychiatric problems routinely undergo a treatment that has never been tested in a clinical trial and that many parents regard as cruel. Psychiatrists who use the technique claim that it produces positive results, but critics argue that it shows just how far France has fallen out of step with the international medical community in its understanding of the condition.

The therapy, called packing, involves wrapping a child tightly in wet sheets that have been placed in the refrigerator for up to an hour. When children are encased in this damp cocoon—with only their head left free—psychiatrically trained staff talk to them about their feelings. Typically, the treatment is repeated several times a week, and depending on the results and the severity of the child's condition, it can continue for months or even years.

Oh, yes, let's talk about your feelings.

Another report comes from Chantal Sicile-Kira  in 2010: 

When [my son] Jeremy showed autistic tendencies [in the early 1990s], I was told by the powers that be to take him to see a psychoanalyst. The psychoanalyst concluded that Jeremy was autistic because he suffered separation issues from breast-feeding. This the analyst gleaned from watching him spin round objects (which reminded him of his mother's breasts) and chase after one that he had "lost" when it fell and rolled under a piece of furniture.

Well maybe things have improved? I guess not.  A recent movie on the topic, entitled The Wall, begins:

For more than thirty years, the international scientific community has acknowledged that autism is a neurologic disorder that is the cause of a handicap in social interaction. All autists have the same anomaly in one area of the brain, the upper temporal line identified in 2000 by Dr. Monica Zilbovicius. In France, psychiatry, being very largely dominated by psychoanalysis, ignores these discoveries. To psychoanalysis, autism is a psychosis. In other words, a major psychic disorder resulting from a bad maternal relationship.

This confirms the impression received by my UK friend from her French physician colleague.

Now, though, the film's producer is being sued.  According to the New York Times,  

Three of the psychoanalysts whom Ms. Robert interviewed for the film have sued her, claiming she misrepresented them in the 52-minute documentary, which has not yet been screened in cinemas or on television. 

[I]n court filings, Mr. Charrière-Bournazel said the film had been edited to make his clients look absurd. Ms. Robert, he said, presented the project to the analysts as a documentary, though “it was in reality a polemical enterprise meant to ridicule psychoanalysis in favor of the behavioral treatments that are so fashionable in the United States.” 

The film makes no pretense of objectivity, juxtaposing interviews with psychoanalysts with scathing criticism of the field’s precepts. Ms. Robert, 44, describes herself as an anthropologist and said she once wanted to be a psychoanalyst herself. 

“I would have never imagined what I discovered,” she said of her first few interviews for the film. “Then I thought, wow, what I hear is just crazy.

 Yes, it is.


Anonymous said...

CREEPY indeed, barbaric, medieval - and mostly mystifying - neurosciences in France are generally very advanced. The wet blanket "therapy" was used to torture dissidents in Russian mental asylums! I met a dissident once, Vladimir Bukovsky, who had the "treatment" and it didn't sound like a hug the way he told it. It seems extraordinary that this has escaped any scrutiny by medical ethicists in France. I hope shame and international condemnation will start to turn things around. My heart bleeds for those poor, abused children.

deevybee said...

The story about "The Wall" is covered in a BBC World Service programme called Health Check which can be heard on a podcast here:

Bea, OT said...

As an occupational therapist who has worked with many children diagnosed with Autism...I am thoroughly appalled and disgusted. I can't even believe it. I just feel angry.

If someone tried to wrap my son in a cold blanket, I don't know what I would do. What do to children who suffered a stroke? I'm cold just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for bringing this terrible therapy to the attention of your US readers.

The "packing" in fact originated in the US during the 70s; it was used for treating ( or attempting to treat ) schizophrenia; it was introduced in France by an American psychiatrist, Dr. Woodbury, to treat autistic children. Too bad...

By the way, today, the producers of the Wall lost their legal battle against the three psychiatrists who sued them. It is likely to stop the distribution of that movie.


Liz Ditz said...

Also see this post at The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, "A Culture of Abuse: Autism Care in France" by autistic adult Daniel Heurtevant, spokesperson for Support the Wall (Soutenons le Mur).

It's not just the human-rights abuse of le packing. French autistic children aren't educated--they are warehoused at "psychoanalytic schools".

Disclosure: I am a founder and editor for TPGA, and solicited the article from M. Heurtevant.

The Pinstriped Aspie said...

This disturbs me.

I use psychoanalysis as a tool for perspective when analysing films, movies, etc... as a rule, though, I can never take Freud too seriously, because it destroys the art. Laura Mulvey was the first to use Freudian psychoanalysis to study film, but even she stated that psychoanalysis alone is not sufficient to garner a full theoretical understanding>

Film and medicine are two strictly distinct fields, obviously, but the parallels are there. Freudian theory is, in my mind, a projection of Freud himself, and likewise people that take it seriously. People that find projections of this sort in their patients using psychoanalysis are often projecting themselves.

I am autistic, and I became autistic long before I had a bond with my mother. And the fact that I still have a relationship with my mother at 28 years old means the theory fails. It is also flawed in that it assumes that girls can't have autism unless they turn out to be lesbians. I know a few French people that I like, maybe two or three, but in general, I'm not a big fan of the French. They're arrogant, pompous arseclowns and I can't stand them.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why all the fuss. What's better, a shot of Haldol, like they do in America for autistics with self injurious behavior? I mean really people, find another thing to be angry about, this isn't one of them. No kids were being abused in any video I saw of this method. They were well supervised and it's a sensory therapy. It may be unconventional but it sure beats drugging them. Also, the wrapping isn't unusual. Millions of people go to high end spas and are wrapped in herbal wraps, cellophane and mud packs, c'mon now.

Amy said...

From what I've read, the ban on Sophie Robert's film "The Wall"/"Le Mur" has been lifted as of January 2014. Link:

Unknown said...

France is a terrible country for autist kids and families, we are working against it and prove social services benefit from putting kid in foster houses with no sound reasons :