French film ban raises autism issue


ON JANUARY 26th last, a court in the French town of Lille ordered that a documentary film be censored and removed from the internet.

The film, entitled The Wall,by Sophie Robert, critically examined the current dominant understanding and treatment of autism in France, which is founded on outdated and redundant theories of psychoanalysis.

Robert interviewed 27 psychoanalysts, three of whom later sued her, claiming they were misrepresented in the film. I have watched the documentary and so far as I can judge, the views of all of those interviewed are consistent with the psychoanalytic model that sees autism as being caused by a distorted relationship between the affected child and the mother. There is no objective evidence to support this viewpoint.

Currently, autism is understood to be a chronic, lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder with biological underpinnings and a strong genetic component. While the condition is not curable, much can be done on a practical level to improve the quality of life of individuals with autism.

Ideologies can give rise to dire consequences and this is evident in the experiences of many French children with autism. In contrast to most other Western countries, it is claimed that up to 80 per cent of them do not attend school. In 2004 the Council of Europe condemned France for failing to provide appropriate education for children with autism.

A common treatment in use in France is termed “packing”, in which a child is wrapped in a wet sheet or blanket that has been refrigerated for about an hour. Only the head is left free and while in this position the child is engaged in psychoanalytic therapy. There is no objective evidence that psychoanalytic therapy has any positive impact on autism and packing is generally regarded as inhumane with potentially serious negative effects.

While the plaintiffs in the case were personally upset, it is clear from the film that some psychoanalysts are opposed to current scientific thinking on this matter.

Autism is characterised by disruption in basic functions in a number of areas. In particular, social skills, communication, cognition and behaviour are often adversely affected. Children with autism are best served by thorough multidisciplinary assessment followed by appropriate educational provision and behaviour-based interventions to help minimise the negative effects of their particular difficulties and to develop the skills to function to the best of their ability.

In taking this case to court, the plaintiffs have unwittingly precipitated a huge public outcry in France and have drawn media interest from many countries. This may facilitate the many groups in France who are agitating for change. Attention has certainly been drawn to the documentary, which incisively exposes the nonsense of psychoanalysis in this arena (and arguably a lot more widely) in the words of the practitioners themselves.

The above legal action brings to mind a broader issue. In general, scientific differences are best addressed in public and academic debate rather than in the courtroom. This has become a significant issue with scientists, journalists and bloggers being threatened with court action or being sued for libel in a clear attempt to silence reasonable criticism. One of the most high-profile cases involved the UK physicist and science journalist Simon Singh, who was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for comments he made in the Guardiannewspaper regarding claims the association made for the effectiveness of chiropractic treatment for conditions other than back pain. The BCA eventually dropped its law suit, but Simon Singh lost a lot of money in defending himself. The UK is infamous for the draconian nature of its libel laws and is a centre for what has been termed “libel tourism”.

The British charity Sense About Science has been running a very effective campaign in a concerted effort to reform UK libel laws. It has been joined by a number of other organisations. Síle Lane of Sense About Science will address the Irish Skeptics Society in March. Details will soon be published on their website

Sophie Robert’s documentary may still be accessed on the internet. She is to launch an appeal against the court ruling.