Aversive Stimulation, Improper Behavior, and the JRC

Tonight’s Primetime: The Outsiders on ABC (9:00pm ET) is about Marc Doherty, who has autism, and who attends the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts. The JRC is, ABC News notes, “[o]ne of the most controversial schools in the country” dues to its use of electric skin shock—aversive stimulation—”to treat children and adults with the most severe cases of autism and emotional and behavioral challenges.”

At first thought, I suspect that most and indeed all of us will respond “no, this is wrong; no, this is unethical” on hearing about the use of electric shock on a disabled person, let alone a disabled child. I know that this is my response and my belief: “This is wrong. This is unethical. This is not ‘treatment’; this is torture.” The ABC News story is set up—is structured—to suggest why electric shock treatment is necessary in cases of “severe autism.” Entitled (pun intended?) ‘Shocking’ School Takes On Severe Autism, the story opens by describing Marc Doherty as staring blankly at his mother at 14 months old, and crying for “14 hours straight” one day. Marc is diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 and then, in the very next paragraph, “began to develop aggressive behavior, and his aggression grew to be so severe that by the time he was 6 he had been thrown out of four schools.” He is given a “cocktail of 12 psychotropic medications” and is described by his mother as sitting in corners and drooling, and then, at the age of 7 or 8, “biting his arms until they bled.”

Having painted this awful portrait of life with autism, the ABC News story describes Marc Doherty’s parents, Linda and Richard, as embarking on a search throughout New York, and to Virginia and Delaware, to find a placement for their son until someone from the Autism Society of America (ASA) tells them about the JRC.

This story, which began by showing the awfulness of autism—the kaka of such a “devastating” disorder—can then introduce the JRC as providing a solution, and a solution that works, when none could be found. After noting that “[t]he Dohertys said they were willing to try aversive stimulation to save their son from self-destruction,” the ABC News story describes the electric shock device used by the JRC, the Graduated Electronic Decelerator. A student wears a backpack containing the transmitter that administers the sock via electrodes attached to the student’s arms, legs and torso. The ABC News story continues:

Though many people object to this type of punishment, Dr. Matthew Israel, the founder and director of the J.R.C., said “the device is simply a device that administers a two-second shock to the surface of the skin that has absolutely no side effects, [and] is extremely effective as a corrective procedure to encourage children not to show violent behavior, not to show self-abusive behavior.”

Using a combination of punishment and reward has had a positive effect on J.R.C. students, said Israel. Students, if they exhibit proper behavior, earn points that can be redeemed for gifts in what he calls the “rewards room.” Students can purchase video games, DVDs, neck ties, jewelry and stuffed animals.

“Video games, DVDs, neck ties, jewelry and stuffed animals”? I have to admit this list of “gifts” from the “‘rewards room’” wrenches me as much as hearing about an autistic child—-a child displaying the aggressive and self-injurious behaviors that my own son Charlie has had–getting an electric shock. Are the “rewards” for “proper behavior” but the cheap stuff of toys and neck ties and video games—is that all that “proper behavior” counts for?

The ABC News story details the changes in Marc Doherty’s and two other students’ behaviors from (as described) unmanageable to “proper.” Without this treatment, students such as these will (Dr. Israel is quoted as saying) “‘end up with no jobs, on the streets, in an institution of some kind, or warehoused, or on drugs”‘—not that the students are not already in “some kind” of “institution” and “warehoused.” It is only towards the end of the report that two dissenting voices are heard, Massachusetts state Sen. Brian Joyce and Dr. Barry Prizant, an expert on autistic children at Brown University‘s Center for the Study of Human Development.

“If this same treatment were allowed on terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, there would be worldwide outrage. It’s incredible to me that it is going on today here in Massachusetts, and I do believe it should be stopped.” (Massachusetts state Sen. Brian Joyce)

“We believe that some kids and some people with autism actually may develop post-traumatic stress disorder based upon these cumulative negative emotional memories [of being shocked]………positive approaches have much longer-term positive effects on people with the most severe behavior.” (Dr. Barry Prizant)

What if the ABC News story had begun instead with Sen. Joyce’s and Dr. Prizant’s statements with their mention of Guantanamo and of autistic persons suffering from “post-traumatic stress disorder based upon these cumulative negative emotional memories [of being shocked].” A reader, or viewer, of ‘Shocking’ School Takes On Severe Autism would really know what is so severely “shocking” about the JRC—and be shocked that anyone could think otherwise.

Previous posts on the JRC:

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    • http://whitterer-autism.blogspot.com/ mcewen

      Can’t say what I would do in their position. I do know that the power of positive reinforcement works for my boys, tedious, repetitive and tiring as it may be.
      We have had the head banging, self scratching, biting, but it’s all a question of degree, I can’t speak for others.
      We have [and do] use the reward system of ‘cheap’ plastic toys, but I think that over looks how ‘valuable’ they can be for the child if you match your ‘reinforcement’ well, especially if your child does not respond to, or is averse to verbal / physical praise.
      Thanks for the advance warning. Cheers

    • http://www.rettdevil.com Kassiane

      ASA huh?

      Interesting, given that several years ago the autistic population was so outraged that they ended up not allowing JRC to buy booth space at their conference anymore.

      And there is no such thing as ‘no side effects’, I suppose all those students with burns are getting cigarettes off the staff and burning themselves for shits and giggles instead? Maybe they should all have the electrodes on them and random disabled people can push the button whenever someone doesnt like what theyre doing, for whatever reason. Bet their ethics would change real quick…

    • http://lisa-jedi.blogspot.com/ Lisa/Jedi

      The whole thing really is heartbreaking… & is a great example of how the media can spin anything to look just fine (or awful, as they wish). We allow Brendan to choose what he earns with our behavioural charting systems (within limits…), which means that he’s really motivated & part of the team. All people are worth the time & trouble of positive solutions, I believe…

    • http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=christschool christschool

      Quite timely in my opinion for my Voices from Captivity Video series coming out that explores the Stockholm Syndrome of some of those at JRC. Not only does the JRC use the GED against people like Marc, but they use it against people with Asperger’s Syndrome whom they want to correct such behavior as flapping. I suspect I will be sued by JRC after this set of videos, but that’s ok. I have the resources to fight back and you can’t sue someone whom only reports the facts.

      It’s interesting to note that Dr. Israel has a rather interesting private life, but you’ll have to wait to find out more about that. I have attempted to get an interview with him, honestly telling him that I am an autistic advocate, but his office has refused to return my calls (can’t say that I blame him, what might it be like for him to confront an actual autistic that doesn’t agree with his methods). I had planned to come out with this documentary this month, but I have decided to try and continue to get an interview with current staff and Dr. Israel, I may wait until the fall and try to line up some PR, its rather “juicey”. If anyone can be of help, please email me at christschool at mac dot com.

      It’s extremely difficult to produce documentaries on a solo basis. I would give anything to have someone work the camera while I seek the interviews.

    • Jennifer

      It’s *definitely* an example of media spin – and a not-uncommon one, at that.

      This *is* the news media that still regularly uses phrases like “confined to a wheelchair” without regard to the fact that for people with mobility issues, a wheelchair is a positive, liberating thing that provides independence.

      (Or, in the case of a then-6-year-old I used to know, a nifty way to beat your friends in races…I swear that thing could have taken off and flown if it had wings attached.)

      Which is not saying that the news media should not be taken to task for their attitudes, of course.

      While I have no doubt that the self-injury and aggressive behaviors described are difficult to deal with, most research I read while getting my credential proved over and over again that aversives and punishment are effective — if at all — only in the short-term.

      Meanwhile, of the kids, all I can say is… “The spear in the Other’s heart is the spear in your own; you are he.” (Diane Duane)

    • Bernie318

      Regardless of plastic toys as reward (which is benign in comparison to the following), has anyone ever been shocked by these devices? I stepped on an electric fence as a kid and will never forget it. I have been shocked by electrical devices too, and let me tell you, I would rather be spanked, hit, beaten to a pulp even rather than be shocked. Being shocked is worse than being punched 100 times! It is horrific. That feeling…makes my skin crawl. The taser makes its way into our society– so disturbing. I will protest any use of shock on any autistic person. It is just inhumane.

    • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

      I recognize that plastic toys are quite “benign,” of course—but I’ve seen such toys and other items handed over to Charlie as “reinforcement” without an understanding of the good, slow, painstaking teaching that must accompany this. It is not any toy that has ultimately motivated Charlie, but being taught by individuals who are very glad to sit down with him, get to know him, meet him on his own terms, tailor their teaching to his needs. And that is the kind of teaching that helped him control the kinds of difficult behaviors—SIBs and agressive—mentioned in the ABC News report.

    • KathyIggy

      I watched part of this last night and felt almost physically ill. The scene that was most disturbing to me was when they were showing the reporter the shock apparatus attached to a girl probably around my daughter’s age. This girl became very agitated and was pulling away and making distressed noises as the machine was being discussed. How could this ever be a good thing? And how could parents sleep at night?

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    • http://club166.blogspot.com/ Club 166

      Amongst the sadness and disgust I feel reading this, something made me smile…

      If this same treatment were allowed on terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, there would be worldwide outrage.

      This is the same analogy I made about a year and a half ago during my (then) 5 year old’s IEP. The school was physically picking him up and placing him in an impromptu “cage” made by placing heavy wooden chairs all around him. He was then totally ignored until his behavior “improved”.

      The majority of the IEP team was “outraged” that I would refer to all of their caring, highly trained “specialists” in that manner.

    • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

      If I may ask, was “outrage” then communicated back to the team…..

    • Jez Rourke

      I think a good way to look at “therapies” is to ask the question, would they be used on “typical” people and be tolerated by society as humane and appropriate.

      Let’s face it, one can look at neurotypical people and autistic people as being really different, but in a lot of ways we are not.

      I’m starting to believe there is no such thing as a “typical” person. People are so different. And it’s easy to make the argument that there are lots of us so called typical people who could use some behavior therapy as well. We all have rituals and habits and quirks and special needs.

      Would those of who smoke choose a smoking cessation program which shocked us rather than smoking a cigarette. No we would not. Would it even be legal? Would people with substance abuse problems be treated with electric shocks. No. Choose any of the myriad of issues and problems typical adults try to change about themselves and not one is treated with the use of electrical shocks.

      Are sex offenders treated with electrical shocks? Violent sex offenders, pedophiles? I don’t think so.

      So how a society can condone the use of electrical shocks as a “treatment” for autism really asks another question….. what does our society think about autistic people?

    • http://club166blogspot.com Club 166

      If I may ask, was “outrage” then communicated back to the team…..

      It turned out not to be a very “productive” meeting, but I certainly felt better after giving them a little lecture in how to treat a fellow human being (a 5 year old one, at that).

      Usually I’m a pretty good negotiator, able to move towards win/win situations. I don’t try to hit people’s “hot buttons” because then they shut down and you never get anything from them. But sometimes you just have to call outrageous behavior out on the carpet.

    • Greg Miller

      My name is Greg Miller. I used to work at Judge Rotenberg Center and spoke against the abuses in the ABC Nightline documentary. I appreciate reading your thoughts on the documentary.

      ABC Nightline did leave out many facts. For example, I told ABC in my 2+ hour interview with them about JRC tying students into restraints on a four-point board and shocking them five times consecutively (over 10 minutes, or 40 minutes, whatever is on the student’s plan) for certain behaviors. The person with the remote control in one hand that you saw on the documentary, and a timer in the other hand, would remain out of sight from the student on the board to administer the shocks. That is to create as much panic and fear in the student as possible to make the punishment far worse than the shocks itself. This was all pre-approved by parents and the judges and the laws of Massachusetts.

      There are worse things I’ve seen at Judge Rotenberg Center. Imagine watching a 40+ year-old adult male, in there with suicidal tendencies from a young age, get attacked three times per week by an adult male staff with a plastic knife. The student was left in restraints all day long for this procedure so that he was unable to defend himself. Then while the student is screaming for his life, TRYING HIS BEST TO DEFEND HIMSELF WHILE TIED IN RESTRAINTS, and the staff tries to jam the knife down the student’s throat while yelling the words,”Do you want to swallow a knife? DO YOU WANT TO SWALLOW A KNIFE???,” someone with the hidden remote control presses the button to shock the student. The student had tried to commit suicide by swallowing a small Exacto Knife blade, and this was their “treatment” for suicide! Ever see the movie Clockwork Orange?

      Not only was this “treatment” traumatic for this student being attacked by the staff with the plastic knife and shocked while defenseless, the “treatments” were done right in front of 40+ other students and 7 – 9 staff in the large Workshop room. If other students screamed or jumped up in response to watching their classmate get attacked like this, they too would get shocked!

      Again, all of this was pre-approved by the judge and is legal in Massachusetts. I have papers from the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) who investigated it to prove that this “treatment” was not “abuse” because it was ordered by the judge.

      The student was not permitted a counselor to offer any type of counseling or psychotherapy, as they believed that it would be counterproductive to their stimulus-response behaviorist approach.

      Dr. Matthew Israel, the owner and Director of Judge Rotenberg Center, was a personal student of Dr. B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist behind ABA. Dr. B.F. Skinner even visited Dr. Israel at the Behavior Research Institute, later renamed to Judge Rotenberg Center, while the Behavior Research Institute was located in Rhode Island. They relocated to Massachusetts after Rhode Island became outraged by the death of one or more students at that school.

      The investigator from the Department of Mental Retardation told me that he was not a doctor to diagnose the bloody scabs as “burns”, that I was also not a doctor to diagnose the bloody scabs as “burns”, and therefore the accusation of “burns” from the electric shocks could not be validated – even if we could provide photographs of the actual injuries. He said even doctors could not diagnose the injuries from photographs, and would risk lawsuit to diagnose the bloody scabs (scabs on top of previous scabs, resulting from so many scabs that anywhere you move the electrodes on the arms, legs or torso will result in placing the electrodes on top of another scab) because doctors have not studied the phenomena of these types of injuries from these specific electric shock devices enough to be able to call it “burns”.

      I came to the conclusion myself that there is a scam and coverup taking place, and that people are prevented from knowing the truth about the laws in Massachusetts that they support.

      Best wishes to Massachusetts Senator Joyce while he tries to change those laws.

      - Greg Miller
      Former JRC Teacher’s Assistant

    • Phil Schwarz

      What is even more disgusting in many ways than the restraints and the electrical shocks is the inculcation of *learned helplessness* in the JRC students. In the report compiled for the New York State Board of Education on JRC (NY State sends over a hundred kids to JRC at a cost of $200k per student per year, so you can begin to comprehend the lucrativeness of Mr. Israel’s dirty little business and the fierceness with which he defends it), students are described as being set up in patently unfair situations and then rewarded for not complaining about them, and punished for speaking up either for fairness for themselves or for classmates.

      Mr. Miller, did you witness situations like that? Could you elaborate further if you did?

      The parents are psychologically intimidated too: Israel holds the sword of Damocles over them, threatening them that if JRC is shut down, their children who are intractably unmanageable without those electrified fanny-packs will be deposited overnight on their doorsteps without a shred of further support. No wonder they clamor and sing JRC’s praises upon command.

      Legislation that would indeed have shut down the abuses at JRC was killed in committee in the Massachusetts legislature — by a single spoiler vote held by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, who has a nephew attending JRC.

      Israel is a clever manipulator: he orchestrated the derailment of the career of Philip Campbell, the former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, who attempted to shut JRC down.

      Half a dozen JRC staffers recently acted in the capacity of licensed mental health professionals — and were advertised as such by JRC — *without* appropriate licensing. As far as I know, criminal litigation on this matter is still proceeding through the state court system.

      The whole thing stinks to high heaven and is a blot upon my home state.

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    • Janet

      NO EXPERT! First, Dr. Barry Prizant, an (alleged) expert on autistic children (or shall we say HIGH FUNCTIONING AUTISTICS) at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Human Development need to have his arrogant, narrow minded head examined. Secondly, I’m tired of hearing how skin shock therapy “distrubs” “troubles” or otherwise “makes someone nauseated” when they hear about it. Get over yourselves. It’s not about you people. It’s about helping children and adults with autism who are held captive to years of mindless, senseless blows, beatings and wounds that leave them battered and dying why the rest of you gutless fools sit around pontificating the aversive therapies. When has Barry boy ever gotten off his dead rear and spent a few years directly helping a child or family suffering from this incredibly compelx and bizzare behavior? Well, never. The fact is big shots like Barry like to go on TV and pretend they know something about a behavior they know little about. I suggest Barry take a hard look at himself. OH, he doesn’t have to. He’s been doing that for years. Yes, the ugly truth my friends is that people like Barry don’t give a damn about others who are really in pain and have long term troubles. This guy and his ilk are all about quick fixes and writing books to make another buck. God forbid you have a child with autism who requires chronic care. This guy and people like him will disappear faster than a politician at reality checkpoint. I’m so tired of these liars. Con men. Group thinkers who abandon all sense of critical analysis so they can stay in the game. The money making game of high turnover and profit in the world of treating and endless speaking and meetings and seminars and book writings about high functioning autistics who frankly, most of the time, weren’t autistic to begin with, hence are often easy cases to deal with.

    • http://www.autisticnation.com/Christschool/Home/Home.html CS


      I’m highly offended by your Mengele type defense of a barbaric treatment of autistic people. Anyone that searches through archives more than a year old to defend JRC is either a practicing clinician there or one of the barbaric and heartless parents who put their children there. I intend to expose everyone that is a vendor to JRC. JRC is going to be shut down, count on it.

      Tells us Janet, what recently occurred in the state of Mass. with the so called psychologists representing themselves to the courts in Mass as far as their qualifications? They were found to have lied to the court. I have video tape of one of those liars explaining how they lie in the brief to the court to describe behaviors (i.e. describing to the court that a student saying “you stink” as aggressive behavior warranting a shock).

    • http://www.autisticnation.com/Christschool/Home/Home.html CS

      By the way Janet, seeing as that you obviously feel that high functioning autistics are a different “breed” from the average JRC student, tell us why JRC is doing lectures on the use of the GED on children with Asperger’s Syndrome? Tell us Janet, who are you?

    • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD


      As noted in my post, my son had very severe self-injurious behavior (head-banging). This behavior worsened when aversives were used and I will not describe how I truly feel about the notion of skin shock therapy being used on my son.

      I have known many “high-functioning autistics” and I’m not sure they would use the word “easy” to describe experience.

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    • Ekaterina

      I am the mother of an autistic child who has been publicly ridiculed , stalked and harassed by a gang of failed councillors expelled by the Church of Scientology. An individual had been harassing my child who is a minor due to his disability. His name is Edward Berwick, located on 395 Anita Ave, Los Altos, CA 94024-4770, married to Teri A. Berwick, daughter Megan Berwick , phone : 650 948 7449 / 650 815 8588 according to public white pages. Mr. Berwick has been partnering with organized gang of ex-members of the Church of Scientology and posting demining comments seeking faults that I did not expose my child to the described by Greg Miller inhumane treatments of the ABA behavioralists. The link with harassing comments: http://www.forum.exscn.net/showthread.php?t=20652&page=21
      Mr. Berwick is acting publicly on the behalf of two sadists, who are supporting him in this activities. Mr. David Thomas and Aida Thomas are expelled members and failed councillors of the Church of Scientology and fabricated lies about my child. When I asked this to stop Mr. David Thomas sadistically laughed at me and tried to extort me in order to remove the defamation from the internet.
      According to her own interviews Mrs Thomas is apparently severely mentally disturbed and suicidal.

      I am posting here because we had exchanged opinion with Greg Miller in the past in regard to some disturbed practices. I had been harrassed by the above individuals due to making a public presentation before the Legislative Assembly to advocate for children with disabilities during the hearing of the Child and Familty services acts reviews. David Thomas thinks that my presentation is a public record of a child protection case he has the right to fabricateand his disturbed whife to publish for the perpose of extortion.

      • Ekaterina

        I want to mention that Edward Berwick , Aida Thomas and David Thomas have just about High School Education. David Thomas and Edward Berwick are general contractors which is the wording for Handy Men. Aida Thomas is a housewife . Edward Berwick goes by the handle CalrmeloOrchards and Aida Thomas is using the handle DiandClass8 or Diana Reynolds. Hiding behind handles both felt justified to spread lies and harass an autistic child and post demeaning insults about my child. Sadistic individuals attacking children are the final product of “when Scientology fails”.