Imagine being being strapped facedown on a four-point restraint board and being shocked repeatedly by an unseen person for swearing…and you’re a child. This is about a book that the Autism Society of NC (ASNC) will never stock or sell. Why talk about it, then? Sometimes we have to address the ugly elephant in the room: the use of punishment (aversives) to change behavior. While ASNC doesn’t make recommendations on specific interventions to use, we disapprove of using punishment to change behavior. There are other, more effective means of teaching replacement behaviors than using electric shocks. Betty Fry Williams and Randy Lee Williams have co-authored Effective Programs for Treating Autism Spectrum Disorder: Applied Behavior Analysis Models, in which they review the characteristics of autism spectrum disorders as well as “state-of-the-art” programs: the Lovaas Institute, Koegel Center, Strategic Teaching and Reinforcement Systems (STARS), Project DATA, New England Children’s Center, May Institute, Princeton Child Development Institute, and Judge Rotenberg Center. It is this last one, the Judge Rotenburg Center (JRC)—located in Canton, MA—that is at the center of controversy.
The JRC uses a device for electrically shocking residents (Graduated Electronic Decelerator), withholds food, and straps residents to a wooden board for shocking. Residents have died in their care. In an article in Boston Magazine, state Senator Brian A. Joyce said: “If we tried to apply this brutal device to a prisoner in Guantanamo or someone in Abu Ghraib, there would be worldwide outrage.” His district includes the school’s Canton site. “In fact, it’s against the Eighth Amendment in our country, right? Cruel and unusual punishment. But we allow it for these innocent children. It’s just not right.”
Seems simple, right? It’s completely wrong and abhorrent to torture people with disabilities. To be balanced, some parents of children at JRC are pleased with the center: “…at a public hearing in January, 15 parents, one grandmother, and one sister spoke about the school, many of them coming from out of state, all of them pleading with legislators not to inhibit the school’s practices. Several others who couldn’t do so in person did so in writing. The letters from parents of JRC students stacked 6 inches high.” (Boston Magazine) One father testified that JRC saved his son’s life by eliminating his self-injurious behavior, after other schools failed.
Nancy Weiss, professor at the University of Delaware and staff leader of the National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, is leading an effort to boycott the publication of this book and to have it removed from bookstore shelves. ASNC supports this effort and opposes using aversives on individuals with disabilities.