Clinician's Digest I


Analysis for Autism?

September/October 2012


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Dozens of French psychoanalysts interviewed for the film espouse outdated and seemingly preposterous ideas about autism as a "psychotic" condition stemming from "maternal madness," parental frigidity, and gestational fantasies in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…

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