Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

Packing heat

by  /  4 February 2011

Wendy Jacob

Imagine if, whenever a child with autism had a tantrum, his parents stripped off his clothes, wrapped him first in cold, wet towels, then in dry blankets, and forced him to stay in this painful cocoon for 45 minutes until his body warmed up.

It seems like a scene from one of those Saw movies. But this ‘treatment,’ called le packing, is real and well known in France. In fact, last February the French Public Health High Council deemed that le packing is not risky enough to warrant a ban.

It’s not often that people in the autism field reach a consensus about anything. But this month, 18 of the field’s heavyweights have declared that le packing is unethical and could prevent these children “from accessing their basic human rights to health and education.”

In one of the few scientific abstracts in which le packing is described, researchers claim that it works by diverting the child’s attention away from his or her obstructive behavior and to these new sensations. Psychiatrist Pierre Delion, one of the therapy’s pioneers, claims that it also reminds children of the limits of their body.

There is no evidence for either of these claims and le packing is unquestionably barbaric. But one aspect of it — the sensation of being hugged — may bring comfort to some people with autism.

For example, many years ago Temple Grandin, the famous animal scientist and autism advocate, created a ‘squeeze machine’ — modeled after contraptions that calm cattle — to calm her frequent anxiety attacks. Temple lies facedown in the machine and uses a joystick to move two wooden panels in toward the sides of her body, pressing her evenly like a hug.

After meeting Grandin in 1995, Wendy Jacob, a researcher in the art, culture and technology department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created a ‘squeeze chair’ (pictured above) or, as Jacob describes it, “a living room alternative to Grandin’s machine.”

The chairs have since been featured in a half-dozen art exhibitions across the world. It’s charming and whimsical, the idea of sitting down for an embrace — and a far cry from being forcibly swaddled.

  • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    Forcible swaddling, electric jolts, shutting inside padded cells…are all things done to people who are autistic. It’s no wonder they have no empathy, if we are to believe Simon Baron Cohen. They get very little.

    Ms. Hughes, I disagree with packing also, but it brings to mind a need of autistics and others who crave deep pressure for calming.Please see this video short from Temple’s HBO Special…it is amazing. You will see it on my web page, here: http://raggette.blogspot.com/2012/01/some-autistics-crave-deep-pressure-and.html

    So many times, because there is such confusion regarding what is the “right thing” to do with autism, the baby is thrown out with the bath water. Regarding ABA, I could never use parts of it with my son, because, as in the case of packing, not offering him a choice felt abusive to me. But Catherine Maurice’s book on Behavioral Intervention for Young children with autism also includes a dynamic program to present language visually that is lost in the interpretation of the intervention.

    Autism is a LANGUAGE disorder, as well as a SENSORY disorder…possibly even moreso than a SOCIAL disorder. Perhaps the social factor is secondary. I often get the notion that what some consider behaviorisms are survival tactics, natural responses.

    I do have an interest beyond the ordinary in this. My own son craves deep pressure, to calm his body and ready himself to relax for sleep. I don’t know whether a weighted blanket would be helpful, but he does wrap himself up as tightly as he can. He is mildly autistic, PDD-nos. I can imagine how much more intense it might be to a severely autistic person. Carly Fleischman (http://www.carlysvoice.com/) said it felt like ants crawling all over her skin. Sensory input and filtering, breaking impulses is discussed here by Carly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEhc1o8oKeI&context=C37dbcc3ADOEgsToPDskKP09-v0YDN-6AqoHDZ7n2a Autistics are telling us what is wrong, but science must use what it has to try to discover new ways of seeing autism. They haven’t risen to what they have been told by the real experts, the autistics themselves.

  • Erich Kofmel

    Actually, Temple Grandin spoke out against packing. She said: “I would hate packing. The child should be able to control the pressure himself. The squeeze machine works on this principle. Packing would be useless and highly stressful for the child.”



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