What does a plastic toy crocodile have to do with autism? "The crocodile is the mother's belly, the mother's teeth," child psychoanalyst Genevieve Loison explains in an interview for director Sophie Robert's controversial new documentary The Wall: Psychoanalysis Put to the Test for Autism. "The goal of our work is to forbid her to eat."
The documentary spotlights current psychoanalytic views of autism in France, which echo the "refrigerator mother" theory dominating American thinking about autism and schizophrenia in the 1950s that damagingly blamed many mothers for the severe mental illness of their children. These views are raising concerns about how the developmental disorder is treated in that country.
Dozens of French psychoanalysts interviewed for the film espouse outdated and seemingly preposterous ideas about autism as a "psychotic" condition stemming from "maternal madness," parental frigidity, and gestational fantasies in utero. In response, many parents and advocacy groups are condemning France's psychoanalytic and institutional treatment methods for children with autism-still prevalent long after most other developed countries have shifted to behavioral and educational approaches-as dangerously reactionary and counterproductive.
Misguided mental health attitudes like those portrayed in The Wall can have dire consequences, especially for a disorder like autism, for which early diagnosis and treatment are essential for lasting success. Daniel Fasquelle, a French parliamentarian and mental health advocate, told the BBC that "if you diagnose early and then give the right treatment between the ages of 2 and 7, 70 percent of autistic children can acquire functional language skills. Here in France, we are way off that figure." Consequently, France has fallen drastically short in care for children with autism. According to French government reports, less than 20 percent of autistic French children attend school. In other developed countries, including the United States and Britain, nearly all autistic children go to school or receive special education. The problem is so bad that the European Committee of Social Rights issued a public condemnation of France's educational care for persons with autism in 2003.
French psychoanalysts in particular are receiving heavy flak, accused of creating and perpetuating a cultural mental health crisis. In a statement for the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, David Celiberti and Catherine Maurice remarked that the country's psychoanalytic community "has been unable to produce credible evidence for its assertions, has robbed children of their futures, and has abdicated responsibility for the harm they have caused families. . . . Children with autism deserve better."
Others feel that psychoanalysis is getting a bum rap. "The film [The Wall] is unfair," French psychoanalytic historian Elisabeth Roudinesco told the New York Times. "It is fanatically anti-psychoanalysis. But I don't think [Robert] manipulated the film to make them look ridiculous; rather, I think she chose to talk with very dogmatic psychoanalysts who come across as ridiculous." Asked what psychoanalysis has to offer autistic children, one analyst had this enigmatic answer for the filmmaker: "The pleasure of taking interest in a soap bubble. I can't answer anything else."
Three analysts successfully sued the filmmaker to have their interviews removed from the documentary. French psychoanalyst Eric Laurent said that "psychoanalysis is being used as a scapegoat" and that, although behavioral methods are effective, their circumscribed focus may fail to address other meaningful dimensions of autism.
Autism: http://rss.ireport.com/docs/DOC-679892; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/health/film-about-treatment-of-autism-strongly-criticized-in-france.html; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17583123.