Autism, antipsychiatry and the pathogenic family
Dolto and the psychoanalytic approach to autism in France
in Psychoanalysis and the family in twentieth-century France
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This chapter looks at Dolto’s ideas in relation to autism, and the scandal around the relatively poor outcomes for French autistic children that emerged after 2000. It shows that Dolto played a significant and hitherto under-appreciated role in promoting psychoanalytic understandings and treatments of autism in France, specifically the idea of autism as resulting from defective or toxic mothering.

The first part of the chapter places this aspect of her career in the context of the radical psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It explores the relationship between radical psychiatry and Lacanian psychoanalysis, with particular reference to the ideas and work of Jean Oury, Félix Guattari and especially Maud Mannoni, a protégée of Dolto’s. It shows how Mannoni and Dolto saw so-called childhood psychoses, including autism, through the prism of antipsychiatric ideas, arguing that autism was not an inborn condition but the result of a pathogenic family environment.

The second section examines Dolto’s popular book-length case study, Le Cas Dominique (1971). It shows how Dolto manipulated the narrative of the case to bring it under the pathogenic family paradigm that she had developed with Mannoni, blaming Dominique’s condition on his mother. The chapter also demonstrates the largely favourable reception of Le Cas Dominique in the French press – before, in a short final section, illustrating the links between the Dolto-Mannoni approach to autism and the twenty-first-century scandal.


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