Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Autism and Psychoanalysis in the French Context *

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Autism and Psychoanalysis in the French Context *

Article excerpt

As is the case in Western countries as a whole, the application of psychoanalysis in France to the treatment of autistic children has been subjected over the last few decades to more or less violent criticism, and even to obstacles of various kinds, which make it increasingly difficult. This takes on, of course, different colourings from one country to another, depending on each country's history, culture, traditions, and the current organisation of psychiatric and psychotherapeutic care. This article aims to describe these particular features in the French context. With this end in mind, it is necessary to take into account the evolution not only of the notion of infantile autism but also of psychoanalysis, as well as of their interface.

The advent of infantile autism in France

As much as French psychiatry had played a pioneering role in the history of psychiatry, the descriptions of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger were only heard of relatively late in France. In an authoritative work, the child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Hochmann (2009) emphasised the similarity of the descriptions of those who discovered infantile autism in the twentieth century with certain descriptions made by French authors in the nineteenth century.

This similarity is particularly apparent in the descriptions of the famous feral or "wild" child, Victor of Aveyron, first by Abbé Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre (1800), then by the doctor Jean Itard (1801 & 1806). The adventures of this child made a deep impression on people, traces of which can still be found in the French child psychiatric tradition. Victor was found naked in 1799 in a wood in Aveyron, a region located to the south of the Massif Central. He was eventually captured in 1800 after he had taken refuge with a dyer during a particularly harsh winter. Placed initially in the care of the Abbé Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre, a professor of Natural History in Rodez, he was then transferred to Paris on the orders of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother and Interior Minister during the Consulate.

The interest taken by Parisian scientists in this wild child was considerable on account of the ideology of the revolutionary era, inherited from the Enlightenment, and especially from the sensualism espoused by E. Condillac (1746), who had transposed the empiricism of the British philosopher John Locke (1689) into French thought. The central idea of this philosophical current was that intelligence had its source in the sensations received through the sense organs. The French philosophers of the revolutionary era, Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, Volney, Garat, who were known as "ideologists," thought that an adequate education, particularly by means of repeated stimulation of the senses, would make it possible to educate a child who had been deprived of education hitherto, and therefore help him acquire the culture he was lacking. This belief inspired the revolutionaries who wanted to reform society in such a way as to purge it of all the distortions of the Ancien Régime and bring into existence a new man devoid of wickedness and all sorts of perversions.

The long re-education undertaken by Itard to humanise Victor only had limited results. Victor never acquired access to language, nor most probably to symbolic thought. It is very clear from the detailed accounts that Itard left to us about his attempt that he sought to apply techniques of conditioning, well before this notion had been developed explicitly in the work of Pavlov. For example, in an attempt to make him say the word "water," he would present Victor with a glass of water when he knew he was thirsty and utter the word, inviting him to repeat it, failing which he would not give him the glass of water that he wanted. Victor never repeated the word "water"; nor indeed did he repeat any other word. We are struck, when reading Itard, to see, notwithstanding the kindness that he showed towards his pupil, his absence of empathy and his ignorance of the effects of the emotional relationship in the development of a child's mind. …

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