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Mum on Hunger Strike to Save Daughter from Pseudoscience

by Martine O'Callaghan

July 18, 2013

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Donate Seven year old, Melissa, is autistic and lives with her parents in France. Her mother, Jacqueline Tiarti has not eaten for eleven days. "Thank you, my country," writes Tiarti on Facebook, "for having pushed me into a hunger strike to claim the rights of my daughter and those of thousands of autistic children." The French government has failed to provide evidence based therapies or educational support for her daughter, insisting, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the way to "treat" autism is with psychoanalysis.

Bruno Bettelheim's theory that autism is a child's response to detached, aloof parents - the refrigerator mother - spawned interventions devised to "thaw" the cold, autistic child. One such is holding therapy, also known as attachment therapy, whereby a child is held as tightly as possible by the parent/carer/therapist and fiercely resisted should the child struggle. Even at its most benign, this is akin to torture for hypersensitive individuals for whom even light touch can be perceived as pain. Holders and the held can and have been seriously injured in what is little more than a one-sided wrestling match. Children have been suffocated. Advocates for Children in Therapy details some of the children lost to this pseudoscience, which, is not restricted to autistics but also includes children deemed to have been suffering from attachment disorders (many of them neurotypical adopted children).

In mainstream practices in the majority of developed countries, such treatments are not used relying, as they do, on Bettleheim's post Freudian, psychogenic theories of the causes of autism. It is hard to believe that an even more barbaric and potentially dangerous variant of holding therapy, called packing, is practiced in more than 300 establishments including residential institutions to this very day in that most advanced and civilised of nations, France.

Packing, unpacked

During a packing session, children are stripped and wrapped very tightly in cold wet sheets (around 50 degrees F/10 degrees C). Some practitioners refrigerate the wet sheets to make them colder still. The sessions, of around 45 minutes, may be repeated daily. For a photographic breakdown of a packing session click here. Proponents of packing claim it can:
  • improve/restore child's body image;

  • improve relationships with parents especially in terms of physical contact;

  • reduce self-harming behaviour;

  • reduce repetitive behaviour and stimming;

There is not a shred of evidence in support of these claims beyond the fact that a child bound in cold wet sheets cannot use his or her hands and arms for the duration of a session to self injure or stim.

Opponents of packing, such as Support the Wall - Autism, have called for, but been refused, a moratorium on the practice. They cite many objections to this supposed therapy including that it may make autistic children more susceptible to sexual abuse as,
the child, accustomed to being in their underwear in front of adults for an activity they do not understand, loses the ability to distinguish between strangers and their carers and parents. At best, they might simply be confused. At worst they will find it normal to undress in front of adults who may wish to harm them. How can these children ever learn the basic social signposts to be able to protect themselves from sexual aggression?
Tragically, calls for change have gone unheard and somewhat unsupported. Parents of institutionalised children fear their children being returned should they object to the regime at what is their child's home. The numbers of children institutionalised in France was, in 2007, around 108,000 compared to just 2,245 children in the UK.

Indeed, France is certainly lagging when it comes to autism diagnosis and services. Fewer than 20% of autistic children regularly attend school of any kind and the vast majority of people with an ASD diagnosis receive it after the age of six. On the other hand, childhood schizophrenia and childhood depression are still relatively common diagnoses. The state, it seems, supports the use of packing and it is practiced in institutions it funds. In February 2010, France's High Council for Public Health declared,
"given the absence of notable risks identified to date, the practice of Packing presents no risk which would justify its prohibition."
The fact that it may cause suffering to a child upon whom this is inflicted seems entirely lost upon them. The same can be said for the French National Authority for Health who state:
"For psychoanalysts, autistic processes, whatever their cause, are linked to the archaic anguishes found in children presenting invasive developmental disorders. These anguishes lead them to react using defensive mechanisms which progressively isolate them. The different measures proposed aim at enabling the expression of these archaic elements in a relationship with a therapist."
The fact that the poor (even for the time) psychoanalytical model of autism has been dead and buried for decades has passed them by. in 2009 a statement from autism experts stated,
"We have reached the consensus that practitioners and families around the world should consider [packing] unethical. Furthermore, this "therapy" ignores current knowledge about autism spectrum disorders; goes against evidence-based practice [and] poses a risk of preventing these children and adolescents from accessing their basic human rights to health and education."
signatories include Michael Rutter, Simon Baron-Cohen and Eric Fombonne.

Packing has been in routine use on the continent for over thirty years and it's variants for much longer still. France, however is one of the few countries to still use it on such a routine basis. 2012 was the year that France declared autism its "National Cause of the Year." It kicked off with the banning of Sophie Robert's documentary, Le Mur, exploring the treatment of the nation's autistic children. Autism awareness, French style, does not extend to raising awareness of the state funded torture of autistic children.


by Martine O'Callaghan

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