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: