Le Pack It In

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticOct 7, 2011 3:39 AM


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Earlier this year, a large group of autism experts signed a consensus statement condemning "Le Packing", a certain procedure used in children with autism.

They said:

This alleged therapy consists of wrapping the patient (wearing only underclothes or naked in the case of young children) several times a week during weeks or months in towels soaked in cold water (10°C to 15°C). The individual is wrapped with blankets to help the body warm up in a process lasting 45 minutes, during which time the child or adolescent is accompanied by two to four staff...

The alleged goal of this technique is to “allow the child to rid him- or herself progressively of its pathological defense mechanisms against archaic anxieties,” by achieving “a greater perception and integration of the body, and a growing sense of containment..."

We have reached the consensus that practitioners and families around the world should consider this approach unethical.

Le Packing is almost unheard of outside France, where it was invented some years ago by M. A. Woodbury, an American psychiatrist. It's controversial even there.

Now Pierre Delion, a French packer who's previously defended the approach, and even wrote the book on it, has penned an article which discusses the towel-based treatment: Towards a dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience: Connections that are both possible and necessary

The piece (part of a special issue on psychoanalysis and neuroscience) starts out with some general scholarly remarks about previous authors who have discussed Freud and the brain, but it moves on to autism, with some, well, puzzling remarks:

During the ?rst months of life, an infant will actively practice his or her archaic re?exes. Of these, the grasping, which will progressively disappear as voluntary prehension emerges around the age of 4–5 months, is of great interest. The facilitation and/or anaclitic relationships between this re?ex and adhesive identi?cation are even more interesting to study together because, for instance, in an autistic child, the ?rst model will integrate under the form of pathological adhesive identi?cation.

In such an example, a strategy for thinking about these two phenomena and making them compatible is using a third term (e.g., Peircean logic, in which adhesive identi?cation is an icon of grasping). If we refer to this important principle from this great American semiotician, the icon is part of the logical representation scheme from the most elementary, the icon, to the most evolved, the symbol, passing by the intermediate, the index...

The relationships between neurological wiring and pre-wiring enable the effective installation of the theory of mind and the phenomenon of projective identi?cation described by Melanie Klein and her students...


On Le Packing itself we get a curious paragraph which seems to be saying that the therapy itself works via a neurophysiological mechanism, but that Freudian theory can explain why the child and their caregivers are anxious. What the anxiety in question is about is not clear. About the packing? That seems the most natural reading:

Another example taken from Pierre Delion’s practice as a therapist for children with autistic disorder is the ‘‘packing’’ technique (Goeb et al., 2008). This is the use of humid wrapping to prevent self-mutilation by using these two different levels [i.e. neuroscience and psychoanalysis] that are nonetheless joint during treatment. This technique uses a neurophysiological hypothesis to try to explain the therapeutic effects, but, at the same time, the psychopathological hypothesis that is given by psychoanalysis helps to format the anxieties that are experienced by the children and invariably shared by their caretakers.

Clinical research regarding this topic is currently being undertaken in Pierre Delion’s child psychiatry department following a hospital program for clinical research (PHRC, NoEudra CT: 2007-A01376-47) entitled ‘‘Demonstration of the ef?ciency of packing treatments in children affected by autistic disorders with severe behavioral disorders’’.

Delion P (2011). Towards a dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience: Connections that are both possible and necessary. Journal of physiology, Paris PMID: 21963531

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