The FDA continues its investigation into the use of electric shock therapy on students with autism at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. The school has been involved in several lawsuits from families of former students, and has been the focus of several disability-rights groups, alleging that the use of electric-shock aversive therapy violates the rights of their students. Even the UN condemned the practice, comparing it to torture.
The school insists that electric shock therapy is only used in extreme cases, where the individual is a danger to self or others. Of the 235 students enrolled at the school, only 55 are being treated with skin shocks. The school is required to gain a court’s approval before using shock therapy with any given student. The device, called a graduated electronic decelerator, or GED, is attached to the arms or legs, and gives the subject a two-second shock to the skin at a push of a button. Shocks are administered when the student is engaging in harmful behaviors, towards themselves or others.
Some patients have compared the sting to a hard pinch or bee sting, but others have claimed it is much worse. One student compared it to being stung by a thousand bees. The GED device was cleared for use by the FDA in 1994, but the Judge Rotenberg Center started using a newer version that was 2.5 times stronger when a student developed a tolerance for the shocks. In 2004, the FDA said the school did not need approval to use the stronger GED, but reversed this stance in 2011.
Many former students have spoken out against the use of the GED. Jennifer Msumba was given over 230 electric shocks while she was enrolled at the school. She also claims that she was denied psychiatric drugs, and that the GED left burns on her skin. Her family is suing the Judge Rotenberg Center.
Other families have testified that the GED therapy has been beneficial for their children. Sharon Wood of Charlottesville, Virginia, credits the therapy with stopping her 21-year old son’s violent outbursts, which often caused her to lock herself and her daughter in a separate room. Louis Goldberg of Newton, Massachusetts, also credits the therapy with easing her son, Andrew’s violent behaviors. The Judge Rotenberg Center took him in after he was kicked out of another facility, where he was on so many medications that his mother described him as a “zombie.”
The use of aversive therapy brings out strong feelings on both sides, and the FDA will have to make a decision whether or not it should be banned. Representatives from disability-rights groups argue that it is unethical to shock individuals who are unable to communicate and stand up for themselves. On the other hand, parents of children with extreme self-injurious and violent behaviors fear losing the one approach that actually helped their children. Whether the FDA moves to ban the use of GED therapy remains to be seen, but many are awaiting their decision.
Autism Daily Newscast’s original article from August with video can be read here.