Of the many myths about autism, the belief that it is a mental illness has been soundly discredited in the U.S. but it persists in other countries and most of all in France. A year ago, “Le Mur” (“The Wall”), a documentary about two autistic boys more than ruffled a few feathers in France’s well-established community of psychoanalysts. Filmmaker Sophie Robert showed how one autistic boy, Guillaume, was treated with the “American” approach of behavioral teaching and fared far better than another, Julien, who underwent analysis while living in an asylum for six years. Three French psychoanalysts interviewed for the film sued Robert for misrepresenting them and their profession.
To many Americans, the very idea of treating autistic children with psychoanalysis, and the French therapists’ outrage and lawsuit, were ludicrous.†About ten years ago, on hearing that our son Charlie is autistic,†a colleague of my husband’s — she was from†Argentina, a country where psychoanalysis also †remains widely in practice — asked if†he was†receiving psychotherapy. To say that my husband was taken aback is quite an understatement: Charlie is minimally verbal and has intellectual disabilities and the thought of him sitting on a couch being asked questions such as “how did you feel when your mother stopped breast-feeding you?” by a guy in a tweedy jacket with a pipe was, well, comical.
In the U.S., Autism Was Originally Described As “Childhood Schizophrenia”
Autism†was first described by†Leo Kanner (a child psychiatrist of Austrian origin who was living in the U.S.)†in 1943.†Autism was first†referred to as childhood schizophrenia in the†Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Only in the†third version of this “psychiatrist’s bible” (published in 1980) was this changed.
In the U.S., autism is now considered a†neurological (some say neurodevelopmental) disability of†genetic origin;†the†National Institutes of Health recommends behavioral and other therapies. More then 95 percent of autistic children attend school in the U.S., where the right to a “free and appropriate education” is mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
In the U.S., it is commonly acknowledged that the†identification of autism as a psychiatric disorder led to a colossal amount of misunderstanding about autism and how to treat it, with parents (especially mothers) singled out as the cause due to their failing to emotionally bond with their young infants.
Autism Is Still Considered a Psychiatric Disorder in France
Such misunderstanding and mistreatment of autistic children continues in France, with terrible consequences for them and their families,†as one mother has written. Only about 20 percent of autistic children in France attend school, with most remaining at home or placed in psychiatric hospitals where they can be subjected to abusive treatment including a “therapy” called “Le Packing,” which involves wrapping children in refrigerated wet towels while psychiatrically-trained staff talk to them about their feelings.
As Robert told the New York Times, mothers of autistic children in France feel no choice but to accept a psychiatric disgnosis for a child out of fear of losing social services. “If you refuse psychoanalysis for your child, they say: ‘Youíre refusing care,’ and they can put the kid in an asylum if they want,” Robert explained.
French Parents and Others Campaign To Change Definition of Autism
Robert’s film has been part of an ongoing effort to change the understanding and treatment of autism in France. After the organization Autism Europe lodged a complaint against France in 2002 for failing to educate autistic children, the†European Committee of Social Rights said that “France has failed to achieve sufficient progress” in educating autistic children and had made autistics an “excluded group.”
Seeking to help their children, more parents in France have been taking action, lobbying politicians like†Daniel Fasquelle, a member of France’s parliament who says in the BBC that it is an “an out-and-out disgrace” that France’s medical community should continue to swear by psychoanalysis as the treatment for autism.†David Heurtevent’s†Support the Wall project continues the†fight for the rights of autistics in France to†education and services.
It is perhaps not surprising that the use of psychoanalysis to treat autism should be making its last stand in France, where Freudianism has long been applied not only to the treatment of mental illness but also to the study of†literature, philosophy and radical politics.†In a new year, it is more than time for the French medical community to acknowledge that it is decades behind the rest of the world in understanding what autism is and in treating and educating autistic individuals in ways that will actually help them achieve all they can.
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