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Psychoanalysis Helps Kids With Autism

Researchers Say Psychoanalysis Should Be Part of Treatment for Children With Autism
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 25, 2008 -- From the strict dairy-free and wheat-free diet that actress Jenny McCarthy details in her best-selling book, Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism, to mercury detoxification and other types of speech and behavior therapies, there is little that parents of children with autistic spectrum disorders will not try to help reach their children.

And psychoanalysis may be a valuable addition to the mix, researchers said at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City.

The CDC estimates that one in 150 individuals has autism, a disorder that begins in early childhood and is marked by developmental delays and lagging social and communication skills.

Autism is part of a larger group of disorders that is referred to as autism spectrum disorders. The symptoms of autism can range from very mild to quite severe. Children who are diagnosed with autism often see numerous specialists several times a week for various types of speech and behavioral therapy.

Psychoanalysts see autistic children four times a week, typically with a parent in the room. They also counsel parents once a week separately to keep them abreast of progress. In a nutshell, the analyst serves as a sensitive translator who attempts to decode what the child is thinking, feeling, and doing.

"A major piece is to make sense of what the child is trying to communicate, translate it to the mother, and give her the confidence that she can do it, too," explains Susan P. Sherkow, MD, a New York City psychoanalyst who works with autistic children and their families.

"The therapist focuses on the behavior, mood, or emotion of the child and then translates it to the child and waits for a sign that the child feels understood, such as a furtive glance. And from there, the therapist enters the child's world," she explains. Sometimes, this translation is putting the child's actions into words such as saying "you are picking up a cup."

"Psychoanalysis should be part of the package because unless you have a really gifted specialist, you are not going to get at the meaning of what these children are trying to convey," she says.

Another therapy known as applied behavior analysis (ABA) is aimed at supporting the behaviors that you want in the child and extinguishing those you don't, while psychoanalysis works at trying to understand the child.

Is Autism Reversible?

Sherkow and others believe that autism may be reversible with early intervention -- including psychoanalysis. The theory is that the brain is more malleable than previously believed and can be reconfigured with proper therapy.

To that end, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is now urging pediatricians to screen every child for autism twice by age 2. Some early red flags include: not turning when a parent calls the baby's name; not turning to look when the parent says, "Look at that" and not pointing themselves to show parents an interesting object or event; a lack of back-and-forth babbling; smiling late; and failure to make eye contact with people.

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