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"Packing" Autistic Kids: A French Scandal

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 24, 2011 8:35 PMApr 18, 2023 2:54 PM


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Back in the bad old days of autism they thought it was caused by “refrigerator mothers”

Well, right now, some psychiatrists have decided that the best treatment for autism is something not that far removed from sticking them in a refrigerator – literally. Enter “Le Packing”, which is the target of an unprecedented consensus statement just out from a list of 18 big-name autism experts (available free here).

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 persons.

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.”

No, really. Frankly, they could have stopped there, because the description is condemnation enough, but they go on to write:

We have reached the consensus that practitioners and families around the world should consider this approach unethical. Furthermore, this “therapy” ignores current knowledge about autism spectrum disorders; goes against evidence-based practice…and, in our view, poses a risk of preventing these children and adolescents from accessing their basic human rights to health and education.

Le Packing, as the name suggests, originated in France, and its use seems to be confined to France and other French-speaking areas. This is the first I’d ever heard of it. Little has been written about it in English (though see this long article and this piece from 2007) so here’s my loose translation of the the article on the French Wikipedia:

  • Packing is used in children with autism, but also in others: psychotic adults (specifically when they’re recovering from an acute psychotic episode), in the elderly, etc.

  • It’s intended to restore “awareness of the body image”.

  • It’s extremely controversial. Well, duh.

  • The technique was invented, in France, by a “controversial American psychiatrist” called M. A. Woodburry. It was intended for the treatment of severely autistic children and adolescents, especially those with severe behavioural problems such as self-harm, aggression, and refusal to eat.

  • The patient is wrapped in towels covered in cold water: two towels for the torso, and one for each arm and leg. They’re then additionally wrapped in a sheet and then blankets, over the towels. The cold water quickly warms up thanks to body heat: the child is never actually hypothermic.

  • After this session, the child is “frictionné” (I guess this means massaged) and taken to their living quarters and offered a snack “in a friendly atmosphere”.

  • Le Packing is intended to recover a physical sense of their own body. It should be used as part of a wider package of care, and only with the consent of the patient’s parents.

  • The cold water is optional; some, e.g. a Dr A. Gillis, use warm water nowadays. The key point is the restraint, i.e. the fact that their attempts to move their body are restricted temporarily. Hence “le packing”, huh.

  • The scientific status of Le Packing is controversial. A group called “Léa pour Samy” say it should be banned, and replaced by the (much more orthodox) method of ABA. However, in 2007, authorities approved a randomized controlled trial led by a “Dr Goeb” of the CHU hospital in Lille.

  • Critics accuse Le Packing of being an unethical, inhuman and degrading treatment, maybe even torture. There are allegations of cases in which the towels were much colder than 10°C, e.g. straight out of the freezer.

  • There are also allegations of its use without parental consent. A Professor Pierre Delion, of the CHU in Lille, reportedly defended this in remarks to The Lancet “if a child is in danger following a road accident, you do not wait for the parents’ agreement to give him a transfusion.”But this is actually a misquote. In the Lancet piece, he was referring to the patient’s consent and said parental consent was always sought.

  • In 2009 a government minister told the French Senate that Le Packing should only be used under strictly controlled conditions according to a protocol – but others, e.g. the “Léa pour Samy” group, want it banned altogether.

This rather speaks for itself, but I’ll say this. If someone is suffering these kinds of severe behavioural disturbances, the temptation to do somethingdramatic must be intense. Indeed, if someone’s disturbed to the point of trying to mutilate themselves, or refusing to eat, almost by definition you’re going to have to restrain them, either physically or with sedatives, temporarily. While Le Packing may be a French peculiarity, it’s not like psychiatrists in other countries never resort to drastic measures.

Amaral D, Rogers SJ, Baron-Cohen S, Bourgeron T, Caffo E, Fombonne E, Fuentes J, Howlin P, Rutter M, Klin A, Volkmar F, Lord C, Minshew N, Nardocci F, Rizzolatti G, Russo S, Scifo R, & van der Gaag RJ (2011). Against le packing: a consensus statement. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50 (2), 191-2 PMID: 21241956

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