France on Friday promised to offer places for all autistic children in nursery schools as it unveiled a €340m (£297m) overhaul of its approach to the disorder, which experts and the United Nations denounce as woefully retrograde.
While France is widely lauded for its public health care system, it has been accused of being up to “50 years” behind the rest of the world on detecting autism, and providing basic education and therapy for those with the condition.
The UN recently slammed the country for “widespread violation” of its citizens’ rights over its approach, and France has repeatedly had to pay damages to families for the inadequate care of autistic children in recent years.
Prime minister Edouard Philippe promised to “make up for lost time” as he unveiled the five-year strategy whose aim was to make the life of autistic children and adults alike “as normal as possible”.
A 2005 law guarantees every child the right to education in a mainstream school, but the Council of Europe has condemned France for not respecting it.
Only around 20 per cent of children with autism go to school compared to 70 per cent in Britain.
Mr Philippe pledged that all autistic children born this year would by 2021 be admitted to nursery school, which his government has made compulsory.
“You are right to be scandalised, I’m scandalised too,” Mr Philippe told the grandmother of an autistic child “refused” entry to school.
“We have fallen behind on this issue, which is unacceptable,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron had already lifted the lid on the autism plan when he visited a hospital in Rouen on Thursday with his wife Brigitte, who has pledged to fight for the rights of autistic children.
Almost half the 150 or so letters she receives every day concern testimonies regarding the difficulties faced by autistic people in France.
The plan will focus on earlier diagnosis, help for families, teacher training and research to better understand autism – a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by repetitive behaviour and impaired verbal communication and social interaction.
There will also be a drive to improve support for autistic adults, many of whom are inappropriately admitted to psychiatric hospitals.
In its most recent report on the subject, the UN says children with autism in France “continue to be subjected to widespread violations of their rights”.
The UN found the majority of children with autism in France were “still offered inefficient psychoanalytical therapies, overmedication and placement in psychiatric hospitals and institutions”.
Hugo Horiot, an autistic French writer, actor and director who recently published a book, Autisme, J’Accuse, welcomed the government shining a light on the problem.
But he said the budget was a drop in the ocean compared to the €7 billion France’s state auditor recently cited as necessary to support autism.
The money must be wrested away from powerful health and medical “lobbies”, he warned. “The French disdain autistic people… This isn’t about adapting, it’s about a total sea change,” he told Slate.fr.