Autism’s hope

Doctor of medicine and neuroscience, Nadia Chabane has been working on autism for more than fifteen years. Her favourite topic: earlier testing for the illness. (Félix Imhof © UNIL)

Mélanie Affentrager / L’Uniscope
Fascinated by psychiatry since adolescence, Nadia Chabane is now director of the new Autism Centre for the Vaud canton, situated in Lausanne: a partnership between UNIL and Lausanne University Hospital.

For more than ten years, Nadia Chabane directed the autism unit at the Robert-Debré Hospital in Paris. She confesses to having been instantly attracted by the Lausanne venture. She took over at the helm of the new Autism Centre for the Vaud canton in September 2014. As a paediatric psychiatrist specialising in neuroscience, she sees the centre as bringing together three essential components – clinical activity, active research and a programme of training and teaching. “For some years I had dreamt of setting up a multidisciplinary facility. France was perhaps not quite ready. When this opportunity arose in Switzerland, I jumped at it. It was an obvious move for me,” reveals Nadia Chabane, who also holds the Hoffmann Chair of Excellence in the field of autistic spectrum disorders and is a full professor at UNIL. She speaks eloquently, her sentences punctuated by the soft ‘chink’ of her silver bracelet against the desk.

Arriving straight from Paris, it is just over a year since she settled in Switzerland with her 10-year-old son. Her older son is studying in Italy. The language she uses is always clear; her tone is calm, almost motherly. Sometimes it rises, as when she is asked if the fact of being an expert in autism made her more vigilant towards her own children. “It was hell!” she exclaims, amused. “For the first few months, I never stopped trying to catch my baby’s gaze. I was constantly looking to see how he interacted. But I didn’t panic,” she goes on to add with a smile.

Psychiatry, a no-brainer

Born in Paris in 1963, Nadia Chabane grew up in an environment far removed from medicine. “On both sides of the family, I’m the only one to have chosen this path.” Her father worked in the oil and gas industry and her mother in the fashion and creative industry. “As an only daughter, I was treated like royalty,” she jokes. In her late teens and early adulthood she suffered more from not having brothers or sisters. As she explains: it is “a time when you no longer want to be the centre of your parents’ attention. When I went to my friends’ houses, I was fascinated by large families, and still am!”

From her adolescence, psychiatry seemed the obvious choice. “I felt there was a world to explore, the functioning of the brain is so complex.” During her studies in Paris and Lille, Nadia Chabane discovered her interest in autism, “an enigmatic field”. She explains that professionals at the time were putting forward “a unique and simplistic vision” of this disorder. “I was intrigued, as the more I met children affected, the more I realised the extent to which they differed from each other; that it couldn’t be that simple. And I wanted to understand.”

Genetic origin

At that time, American scientists were developing research which was raising questions about the European vision of autism, which was still very psychoanalytical. “The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim had stigmatised mothers by stating that it was more than likely that their behaviour was at the root of their children’s defensive postures. This distorted view persisted for a long time in Europe and was a huge source of pain and guilt for parents,” this expert notes. “I wouldn’t say I fought against this analytical approach, but I did a lot of work in order for us to try to be open-minded and to comprehensively question this pathology,” continues Nadia Chabane modestly. She was recipient of the Légion d’honneur in 2013 for her work on autism. We now know with certainty that this illness is a brain development disorder which is biological and particularly genetic in origin.

When asked what she is most proud of, silence ensues. “It is perhaps having formed a genuine bond with families,” she says at last. “In the beginning, the parents were enormously distrustful of psychiatry.” In her role at the Robert-Debré Hospital in Paris, Nadia Chabane set up several specialist consultations and diagnostic units in close collaboration with the organisations of parents of children with autism. “By considering families as real partners, there was a huge improvement in the bonds of trust and I am quite proud of that.”

A new life

“I knew absolutely nothing about Switzerland.” What struck her during the first days? The magical effect of pedestrian crossings! “As soon as I approached, the cars stopped. When you’ve lived your whole life in the centre of Paris, you’re used to the law of the jungle. So I took my young son along and said to him: ‘Watch what’s going to happen.’ He couldn’t get over it…” she explains laughing. Nadia Chabane is delighted to explore the country further. She admits, however, to having little time for herself. “Today with all the balancing of professional and family life, I no longer get the chance to do any sport, something of a disaster for me.” In France she practised modern jazz dance and was very sporty. But she is not one to fuss about looks. At 52, age is not taboo for the elegant doctor. “There’s nothing at all painful about it in my experience!” she concludes, her eyes sparkling.

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