Autistic Advocates and Behavior Therapy Industry Professionals Join Forces to #StopTheShock

Outline of three children wearing GED electroshock behavior therapy devices

A Brief, Shocking History of JRC

Founded in Rhode Island in 1971 as the Behavioral Research Institute, the Judge Rotenberg Center has used “aversives” for behavioral correction. “Aversives,” as inspired by JRC founder Matthew Israel’s training under B.F. Skinner and administered at the center, are physical punishments that include spanking, pinching, extended sessions under white noise helmets, and forced ammonia inhalation.

The residents of the center are disabled: Autistic/Neurodivergent individuals, individuals with Intellectual Development Disabilities, and/or cognitive impairment. Many are nonspeakers. Most are People of Color.

The center eventually moved to Massachusetts and renamed itself in honor of Ernest Rotenberg, the Bristol County probate judge who halted an attempt by state authorities to ban aversives in 1986, following the death of a 22-year-old autistic man, Vincent Milletich, at one of the center’s group homes. Milletich was not the first fatality. Several other residents had died as a result of the implementation of “aversives” and several more would die in the years to come as the center continued its practices.

Since 1990, JRC has implemented shock treatment as an aversive” treatment for alleged violent and self-destructive behavior. JRC uses a proprietary device that is worn by the resident receiving the “aversive” treatment: the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED). There are two models, the simpler one that is still used today consisting of an electrode and a radio transmitter wrapped by Velcro around the arm, trunk, or leg. Shocks are delivered remotely. Residents are monitored 24/7 via camera and shocks are administered not just for discouraging undesired behaviors but for the actions that precede the undesired behaviors. This is called “treating the antecedent.”

There have been substantiated reports of some residents receiving hundreds of shocks in a day. One such resident had been initially shocked for refusing to remove his coat and then subsequent shocks were delivered (325 total) for his tensing up and calling out while being shocked. At one point, while “testing” an earlier, less powerful version of the GED device, one resident was administered several thousand shocks in one day. Despite assurances that the shock devices were used sparingly and only for halting truly dangerous behaviors or actions, it became evident that abuse of the devices and abuse of their power to control residences’ behavior was rampant.

Community Impact

A survey of nearly 800 autistic people and those adjacent to autistic people revealed severe, negative impacts as a result of electroshock behavior therapy and the usage of the GED device.
A survey of nearly 800 autistic people and those adjacent to autistic people revealed severe, negative community impacts as a result of electroshock behavior therapy and the usage of the GED device.

Opinions and personal testimony were gathered from the Autistic and Autistic-adjacent community via a different NeuroClastic survey (click through to view survey results). The responses showed that the psychological, emotional, and personal impact upon the greater community was overwhelmingly negative. The fact of this aversive therapy in the world and the awareness of how it was harming individuals subjected to it increased and intensified the collective trauma experienced by the Autistic population.

Many Calls To Action

In July of this year (2021), a U.S. Federal Appellate Court decision overturned a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on the use of electric shock devices in aversion therapy for children and adults with self-harming or aggressive behaviors.

The Autistic community, Parents, and many Autistic-led organizations were up in arms about this ruling. A surge of protests, online, punctuated by the hashtag #StopTheShock, called for the FDA to appeal that ruling. The deadline for the FDA to file an appeal passed on August 19th.

Despite the deadline passing, there are many grassroots efforts underway to bring State-and-Federal level legislation forth in order to institute a ban on shock treatments and other aversives. The #StopTheShock hashtag remains a powerful symbol of the fight against cruel and inhumane therapies.

There is currently a bill before the Massachusetts legislature, Bill H.225, which would ban aversives, including shock treatments, and a petition through which the public can declare their support of that bill.

AuTeach, an Autistic-led advocacy organization, is leading a letter-writing campaign for educational and therapeutic professionals to address the licensing and governing organizations and agencies (such as the Behavior Analysis Certification Board) with a demand for accountability and action in the form of an unambiguous call for a total ban, at the Federal level, on all aversive treatments, especially shock treatments.

Rallying The Professional Community

Members of NeuroClastic ~ a non-profit collective of Autistic professionals, creatives, and advocates ~ designed and distributed a survey (click through to view the survey data sets) for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs): professionals who primarily work with the Autistic community and their families, often in school and institutional settings. This survey invited BCBAs to weigh in with their professional and personal opinions on the GED (the shock treatment device), in general, and the environment at JRC, specifically. Over 900 therapeutic professionals, 534 of whom were BCBAs, responded.

Some of the questions asked (and the responses) were as follows:

For nearly thirty years, disability advocates have fought to end the use of the GED. The FDA issued a ban on the GED that was overturned. We are asking you to join us as an accomplice in direct activism. Which, if any, of the following would you be willing to do as we call for an immediate moratorium on the use of the GED?

756 individuals responded to this question. 91% were willing to sign petitions calling for a ban. 75% were willing to petition the BACB to revise the ethics code to prohibit torture. 63% were willing to work with disability advocates to strategize ways to ban painful aversives. 60% were willing to call or write lawmakers to ask them to support a ban on the GED. 54% were willing to be an anonymous whistle-blower, calling out racism, ableism, and abuse in their field (43% said they would be a public whistleblower). 52% were willing to speak out about power imbalances in their field that give too much decision-making power to a few people. Smaller but still significant percentages of people stated that they were willing to donate money towards efforts to ban the GED, organize and/or attend protests, publicly call for the resignation of JRC board members, and contact news outlets and ask them to cover the abuses at JRC.

54% of respondants were willing to be an anonymous whistle-blower, calling out racism, able-ism, and abuse in their field. Data provided by NeuroClastic from their survey of 900 professionals working in the field of applied behavior analysis.
54% of respondents were willing to be an anonymous whistle-blower, calling out racism, ableism, and abuse in their field. Data provided by NeuroClastic from their survey of 900 professionals working in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis.

The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) uses a Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) with one or more electrodes placed to a disabled child’s or adult’s body. The device is worn on a backpack with wires coming out of it and electrodes attached to multiple places on the body (from 1 to up to 5 distinct locations). They are worn 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, even during sleep and in showers. The majority of individuals wearing a GED are Black or Brown and many of them are nonspeaking. How do you feel about this practice? Select all that apply.

868 individuals responded to this question. 89% replied that they were strongly opposed to the use of the GED. 88% responded that the field has more effective and humane interventions. 84% said that usage of the GED negatively impacts the reputation of their field. 84% said that the ethics code should protect individuals from corporal punishment. 84% said that the GED is inhumane and use of it is abuse. 83% said that they were discouraged that their field, the BACB, and the ABAI allows for this to continue. 78% said that they are disappointed that the ABAI platforms representatives from the JRC and speakers that justify the use of the GED. 74% declared that they believe racism and ableism contribute to the continued use of the GED. 70% believe that JRC should be shut down.

The following are from a behavior plan made public by a former JRC resident. These target behaviors resulted in skin shocks from the GED device. For which of the following behaviors do you feel it is appropriate to use level three aversives in the form of painful electric skin shocks? Select all that apply.

With 94% of the respondents declaring that under no circumstances is it appropriate for the GED to be used, there is a clear consensus on the inherently abusive nature of the device and its implementation.

NeuroClastic has published the results of the survey in the article, 900 ABA Professionals Have Weighed in on the Use of Electroshock at Judge Rotenberg Center.

An Allied Force

It is obvious, from the responses to the NeuroClastic survey of professionals in the field of behavioral therapies, that the majority of practitioners agree that aversive therapies and usage of the GED are abusive and inappropriate and ought to be banned. Equally obvious is the willingness of therapeutic professionals to take action in order to achieve that goal.

To that end, NeuroClastic is forming plans for direct action and will invite BCBAs and other professionals to participate. With the force and influence of industry professionals joined to the determination of Autistic advocates, much more weight is put behind the demand to #StopTheShock. Appealing to political leaders and legislatures, industry overseers, organizations that claim to serve the Autistic community, and their own peers, therapeutic professionals can boost the signal of the activists, advocates, members of the Autistic community, parents, and allies who have been trying for years to ban aversives, in general, and usage of the GED, specifically.

This unified force presents an unambiguous statement: the cruel, inhumane, and abusive practice of electroshock behavior therapy is wrong and should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to continue.

Even the United Nations condemns the practice and the device. The U.N.’s torture investigator found that the device violated the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

ICARS Supports #StopTheShock

ICARS stands firmly and resolutely with NeuroClastic, the allied force of the therapeutic community, and the entire body of activists and advocates who are working tirelessly to enact a ban on electroshock behavior therapy. It is past time to end this practice which violates the fundamental human rights of vulnerable individuals.

What Can You Do?

Navigate here, to NeuroClastic’s Stop The Shocks action page, where you will find scripts that will guide you as you call, email, or write a letter to Massachusetts State Representatives, asking them to support MA Bill H.225: An Act Regarding The Use Of Aversive Therapy. The Representatives’ Twitter handles are all listed, as well, and they can be appealed to via social media utilizing the #StopTheShock hashtag.

Contact your own Representatives to educate them about the need to enact bans, at the State and Federal level, upon aversive treatments, emphasizing the need to ban electroshock behavior therapy.

Educate the public and build support for the #StopTheShock movement by sharing resources, articles, and materials on your own social media pages.

An Unprecedented Moment

We are in an unprecedented moment when #ActuallyAutistic advocates and professionals from within the therapeutic fields are allied and determined to work towards a common goal. Together, this unified force has the potential to realize lasting and meaningful change. With the added support of the public, they may just succeed in their goal of banning aversive treatments, electroshock behavior therapy, and the GED device, once and for all.

No more torture at JRC.

Featured artwork by Sophia Yankou

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