Sun, Feb 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

‘France is 50 years behind’: the ‘state scandal’ of French autism treatment

A reliance on psychoanalysis sees autistic children going undiagnosed, being placed in psychiatric units and even being removed from their parents

By Angelique Chrisafis  /  The Guardian, PARIS

Illustration:Constance Chou

Like thousands of French children whose parents believe that they have autism, Rachel’s six-year-old son had been placed by the state in a psychiatric hospital day unit. The team there, adherents of post-Freudian psychoanalysis, did not give a clear-cut diagnosis.

Rachel, who lived in a small village outside the alpine city of Grenoble, said she would go elsewhere to have all three of her children assessed, but the hospital called social services, who threatened to take the children away from her.

A consultant psychiatrist said Rachel was fabricating her children’s symptoms for attention, that they were not autistic, and that she wanted them to have autism spectrum disorder to make herself look more interesting.

Rachel’s children were taken and placed in care homes. The children were subsequently diagnosed with autism and other issues, proving Rachel right, but despite a high-profile court battle in which parents’ groups denounced the “prehistoric vision of autism in France,” Rachel, who herself has Asperger syndrome, has still not won back custody of her children two years later. They remain in care with limited visiting rights. Local authorities insist the decision was correct.

“I’m condemned to stand by powerless at the loss of my family,” Rachel wrote after their latest visit to her at Christmas, fearing her children had regressed in care. “I’m destroyed. My children are destroyed.”

The “Rachel affair,” entering another courtroom appeal battle this summer, has become a symbol of what parents’ groups call the “state scandal” of the treatment of autistic children in France. The crisis is so acute that the centrist French President Emmanuel Macron has deemed it an urgent “civilizational challenge,” promising a new autism action plan to be announced within weeks.

The UN stated in its most recent report that autistic children in France “continue to be subjected to widespread violations of their rights.”

The French state has been forced to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in damages to families for inadequate care of autistic children in recent years.

The UN found that the majority of children with autism do not have access to mainstream education and many “are still offered inefficient psychoanalytical therapies, overmedication and placement in psychiatric hospitals and institutions.”

Parents who oppose the institutionalization of their children “are intimidated and threatened and, in some cases, lose custody of their children,” the UN said.

Autism associations in France complain that autistic adults are shut away in hospitals, children face a lack of diagnosis and there is persistent use of a post-Freudian psychoanalytic approach that focuses not on education but on the autistic child’s unconscious feelings toward the mother.

A 2005 law guarantees every child the right to education in a mainstream school, but the Council of Europe has condemned France for not respecting it. Pressure groups estimate that only 20 percent of autistic children are in school, compared with 70 percent in England.

“France is 50 years behind on autism,” said Sophie Janois, Rachel’s lawyer.

Janois’ book, The Autists’ Cause, which was published this month, sets out to raise the alarm on the abuses of autistic people’s legal rights.

“Parents are told: ‘Forget your child, grieve for your child and accept the fact that they will be put in an institution,’” Janois said.

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