Last month, a report by France's top health authority concluded there was no agreement among scientists about whether psychotherapy works for autism, and it was not included in the list of recommended treatments.
That provoked an outcry from psychiatrists. Groups including Freudian societies, the World Association of Psychoanalysis and France's Child Institute started a petition calling on the French government to recognize their clinical approach, focused on psychotherapy.
"The situation in France is sort of like the U.S. in the 1950s," said Dr. Fred Volkmar, a U.S. expert who directs the Child Study Center at Yale University. "The French have a very idiosyncratic view of autism and, for some reason, they are not convinced by the evidence."
In Spain, for example, autism treatment guidelines published in 2006 lumped psychotherapy together with alternative therapies like chelation, which involves the injection of chemicals into the body to remove heavy metals. Spanish officials ruled there was no evidence such alternative treatments work.
Joaquin Fuentes, a psychiatrist and scientific adviser for a Spanish autism group, said that where he works in the Basque region, autistic children go to regular schools and none are sent to psychiatric hospitals. "To be exposed to psychoanalytic treatment is a painful and unethical way of treating children with autism," he said.