A Shocking Story, A Shocking School

There are other, more effective means of teaching replacement behaviors than using electric shocks.

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. 

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10 Responses

  1. I am so glad that ASNC has taken a position on this. There is never a circumstance where aversives should be used; we have so many other tools available to us in our “behavior management” grab bag. I have a kid with behaviors, even SIBs, and using appropriate techniques has not been easy but with consistent approach, his behaviors can be changed.

    Along those same lines, I’d like to see ASNC take a strong position against Restraint and Seclusion in public schools. Currently the senate version of the bill banning R&S leaves the door open for these abusive practices to continue. A clause, introduced by our very own Sen Burr, would allow for the use of R&S to be put in an IEP. These practices should not be in a child’s education plan and often parents are not even aware of what R&S entails and that children DIE from being R&S every year. The latest case in NC was the 5 year old fayetteville girl whose arm was broken by her public school teacher when he applied a “therapeutic hold”. He’s back working by the way. Our children deserve better than this. If applied consistently and intensively, positive techniques to behavior management do work. It would sure be a lot easier to toss a kid in a closet or tie them up or shock them, but that is not only inhumane, it does not work long-term.

    • Thanks for your comments. Kristine. ASNC is currently working behind the scenes on the Restraint/Seclusion issue and will be posting about that soon. We hear from far too many parents about their child (as young as preschool!) being restrained or secluded–even kindergartners charged with assault. Although NC does have the Deborah Greenblatt Act (which limits restraint and seclusion), it does not prohibit prone restraint. It also permits mechanical restraints and seclusion, while only requiring notification to parents if the restraint was done improperly or resulted in observable physical harm (?!). We need federal legislation to increase protection for our children!

  2. On one side we parents have armchair quarterbacks telling us to beat our kids into obedience and on the other side we have shock them, drug them, pin them to the floor, wrestle them, break their arms.

    While I’m tempted to grab a baseball bat and swing for the fences at those who harm our kids, I am reminded that ultimately we are responsible for the safety of our children. I am accountable for my son, the buck stops here. My child will never again be enrolled in a school that allows uneducated, sadistic, improperly trained adults to care for my him. I would rather leave him alone, in the middle of the woods to fend for himself among the wolves.

  3. Never, never in a million years would I advocate this type of conduct. How frightening to think that any parent would allow this treatment of their child, all in the name of their convenience. Shameful!

    • It is truly amazing to imagine that this sort of treatment is permitted anywhere in the United States!

  4. While I am glad you are finally paying attention to this school, I am still concerned that ASA (the Autism Society of America) is still touted by Judge Rotenberg Executive Director, Matthew Israel as listing the JRC as a “family choice”.
    If you listen to the ICAA Radio episodes with Rep. Scibak and Senator Joyce, respectively, you will hear about this. (www.blogtalkradio.com/icaa)
    Up until post show with Rep. Scibak, the JRC’s own question and answer section on the official website had the ASA listed in such a way.
    This school has been operating, with all the torture included, for almost 40 years. All of us should be ashamed of this record, particularly all the leaders who have turned the other way.
    The grossest forms of discrimination, bullying, undue influence, duress, abuse and torture occur at this place. President Obama was called upon by the UN and various organizations, including the ICAA, to heed the call and do something.
    Obviously,our nation has not come very far in accepting the very simple fact that people with differences in ability have rights like anyone else, regardless of difference.
    Will the Autism Society of America join us in speaking out, standing up and lending a hand?
    All of us have a responsibility here, especially if we call ourselves advocates.

    • Emily, Thanks for your comments. One quick thing to point out is that this blog is the Autism Society of North Carolina blog. We are a statewide non-profit organization serving North Carolina. We cannot speak for the Autism Society of America, but I would encourage you to contact them with your concerns. Their website address is http://www.autism-society.org.

  5. I am glad for the publication of this story. However, this school has been in operation for about 40 years.

    The last time I checked, ASA was still listing JRC as a family choice. I hope this has changed.

    Anyone who refers to themselves as an advocate at all should be taking some sort of action against this gross abuse.

    Boycotting books is not the route I have been taking and is not something I find effective in ending the discrimination and torture.

    • The Autism Society of North Carolina (ASNC) – the organization responsible for this blog does not list JRC in its resource guides. I cannot speak for the Autism Society of America (ASA). I am aware that several self advocates have raised this issues at times with ASA but cannot speak to the specific outcomes of those talks. Again, I would have to refer you to ASA (www.autism-society.org or 1-800-3AUTISM) for their position on this issue.

  6. Thank you, ASNC. Update: A representative from ASA phoned me at ICAA and told me personally that she was/is not the person to elaborate on any ASA position regarding JRC. She assured me someone else who could speak about it more fully would be in touch. This was approximately three weeks ago. I have heard nothing else from the ASA other than requests in the mail for donations and information regarding generous benefactors willing to double and triple amounts donated for various periods of time.
    I have not donated to the ASA since finding that they were at least at one time, listing the JRC as a *choice for families*. I will continue to ask the ASA what their stance is currently on some of the practices used at the JRC.

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