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She and her husband later demanded Thomas’ medical records, where psychiatrists wrote that his autism was the result of his parents’ mental problems. “It was very difficult to read what (Thomas) had been subjected to,” she said of the packing sessions. “They noted it all very precisely, how long it had taken and how he had screamed and cried,” she said.

Consel is convinced Thomas would have fared better had the family stayed in the U.S., where he was born. “There is only one way to do things in France,” she said. “And sometimes the government makes the wrong choice.”

Elsewhere in Europe, packing is unheard of and even psychotherapy is rare.

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.

Some French parents resort to sending their children abroad to get adequate treatment. When Andy Beverly’s son Guillaume was diagnosed as autistic at age 2, Guillaume began to receive treatment from psychiatrists in Paris.

“They said his autism was a psychosis and that Guillaume needed to figure out himself how to get over it,” Beverly said. After years of sporadic schooling in France, Beverly sent Guillaume to a school in Belgium that focuses on techniques to help him interact with others and do simple things like putting on his coat. He is convinced that Guillaume, now 15, would be more advanced if he’d gotten better treatment as a child.

“I started out having a lot of trust in the French doctors, but it was only later that I realized we were in the wrong country,” Beverly said. “The situation may finally be getting better, but for a lot of families with autistic children, that’s not enough.”