Some treatments for autism, including one used in the U.S. that involves electric shock, are akin to torture, says a new report (pdf) from the United Nations. In particular, the report singles out a school in Canton, Massachusetts, the Judge Rotenburg Educational Center, that has the dubious distinction of being the “only one in the world” to use electric shock treatment on autistic children and on children with emotional-behavioral disorders, mental retardation and other conditions.
Last June, Juan Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture announced that he was seeking to investigate the JRC. Mendez emphasized that he was “very concerned” about the center’s “treatment plan” of using electric skin shocks administered via remote-control devices.
The report, which also addresses abusive treatments for addiction, unequivocally states that some methods for treating this and autism — such as prolonged physical restraint and isolation — are “tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Use of Electric Shock at Massachusetts School
The use of electric shock in “aversive therapy” at the JRC certainly qualifies as such. Students are administered the shocks via special devices inside backpacks or on packs strapped to their waists that some wear 24 hours a day. The shocks are delivered whenever a student violates rules, some of which are as minor as fidgeting during class or talking. The school’s former director, Matthew Israel, is a Harvard-trained behaviorist who had long claimed that the JRC’s use of electric shock was a “therapy” that “worked” to “treat” severe behaviors, including aggression and self-injury, that could not otherwise be treated.
Disability rights activists have long campaigned against the JRC’s abusive practices. Recently, and finally, Massachusetts education officials, the state Attorney General and others took the first steps to regulate the center. Since 1987, a court order has limited Massachusetts’ authority to oversee and investigate the JRC’s practices. Now, an official from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services has clearly stated that the court order has become “outdated and inconsistent with the current state of behavioral treatment for persons with disabilities.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid has also said that it will no longer allow Medicaid funds to be used for facilities that administer electric shock and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has sent the JRC a warning letter that cites its use of the skin shock devices. As Time magazine notes, the JRC has “never published randomized controlled trials documenting that the treatment is better than non-punitive alternatives.”
It may sound improbable, but the JRC has its supporters. Some parents have asserted that the electric shock “therapy” was the only effective one for their children; some former students have also said that the practice helped them. But such aversive therapy is not only controversial, but indeed “outdated” and there are other, certainly far more humane, applications of behavior therapy and other therapies (including, in some cases, medication) that exist (and that have helped my own teenage autistic son, who has struggled with the sorts of behaviors mentioned in this post).
Why Are Students At a U.S. School Being, In Effect, Tortured?
Mendez himself was subjected to electric shock by Buenos Aires police in 1975 and he has spoken of lasting effects, saying that he feels “very strongly that electricity applied to a person’s body creates a very extreme form of pain. There a lot of lingering consequences including mental illness that can be devastating.” As he says in the U.N. report, “the rights of the students of the JRC subjected to…electric shock and physical means of restraints have been violated under the U.N. Convention against Torture and other international standard.”
The report emphasizes that electric shock on autistic and children with disabilities and other diagnoses must be banned internationally. Certainly it is horrendous to know that such “therapy” is still being carried out at any school. That children in the U.S. are subjected to it should leave us all speechless.
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