Sichuan Province, China – He Xiaoyn, founder of Leyironghe Kindergarten in Ziyang, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, claims to have “cured” 10 children with autism using her controversial, somewhat violent method. Her approach consists of using extreme negative feedback to work towards behavioral changes. For example, if a child bites, she will bite the child. If a child is obsessed with playing with water, she will drench the child from head to toe.
Her method has attracted the attention of parents and experts alike. Many, like Dr. Zhang Zhongming from the Chinese Psychology Association, express concern that such drastic measures may do more damage than good. Others, however, are praising Xiaoyn’s innovative approach, including ten families who claim that her methods have “cured” their children.
He Xiaoyn is a doctoral student of early childhood education. She is not a medical doctor nor a licensed psychologist. She founded the Leyironghe Kindergarten as a special school serving children with autism and learning disabilities.
“There is no effective drug to cure autism right now. My approach is the combination of medical and psychological treatment. As long as parents recognize my efforts, they are my source of motivation. I believe doing so is to save children and even save a family.”
Aversive therapies are no longer common in western cultures, where behavioral methods such as Applied Behavior Analysis are more popular, but they do exist. The Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts came under fire when a video showing a young man with autism being “treated” with electric shocks went viral. Other students came forward with stories of abuse and intimidation. Letters written by survivors of the Judge Rotenberg Center detail the disturbing “consequences” they faced, for offenses such as rocking or covering their ears can be found at http://www.autistichoya.com/2013/01/judge-rotenberg-center-survivors-letter.html.
Punishments included things like shock therapy resulting in burns and scars, meals being withheld, and sleep deprivation. The authors of these letters did not indicate any therapeutic benefits to the “therapies” they received, instead describing extreme anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms resulting from their “education” at the Rotenberg Center.
Is aversion therapy ever useful?
Research shows that it can be helpful for certain issues, such as the use of nausea-inducing drugs for alcoholics, but more often, it seems to cause more harm than good (http://www.minddisorders.com/A-Br/Aversion-therapy.html). Adult patients who are motivated to quit drinking are capable of giving consent to aversive therapies if they feel this approach will be helpful, but individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities are not in a position to give consent, especially children.
Other studies have shown that mild electro-convulsive shock therapy may help individuals with severe self-injurious behaviors (http://brainblogger.com/2011/05/30/electroconvulsive-therapy-in-pediatric-psychiatry/). However, these children were treated by licensed medical professionals, and were not subjected to shocks as “punishment” for undesirable behaviors.
Some parents whose children have severe violent or self-injurious behaviors may feel that aversive therapies are a last resort, and according to ten families in China, they can even “cure” autism. Unfortunately, they often cross the line from “therapy” to outright abuse.