The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, shown in a Google Street View image, is the only facility in the country known to use so-called electrical stimulation devices, which send electric shocks through electrodes attached to the skin, to to treat serious behaviors in people with intellectual disabilities. (Google Maps)
After years of tacit endorsement of the only facility in the nation known to use electric shocks to treat the behavior of people with developmental disabilities, a leading behavior analysis organization is speaking out against the practice.
The Association for Behavior Analysis International, or ABAI, voted this week to adopt a position statement stating that “we strongly oppose the use of contingent electrical skin shocks (CESS) in all conditions.”
This decision was approved by 65% of the organization’s members, even though an ABAI task force set up to evaluate the use of cutaneous electroconvulsive treatment had recommended against it “except in extraordinary circumstances”.
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The ABAI is a major player in the world of behavior analysis, accrediting graduate programs and serving as a membership organization for practitioners, so the group’s position on what counts as a practice acceptable has a significant influence.
At issue is the use of special devices to administer skin shocks to condition people not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.
Currently, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. – which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems – is the only place known to use such devices.
Disability advocates have lobbied for years to end the practice and the Food and Drug Administration finalized a ban on the devices in 2020, saying they posed an ‘unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury’ . The agency pointed to evidence of psychological and physical risks, including burns, tissue damage, worsening of underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, the FDA ban was overturned by a court, and more recently there have been efforts in Congress to ban electric shock devices.
Throughout this time, the ABAI has allowed the Rotenberg Center to sponsor and present its lectures. But earlier this year the group formed a working group to consider a position statement on the use of electric skin shocks after members raised concerns. The task force eventually recommended a position statement opposing the practice with a few exceptions, but the full group instead voted to oppose the use of electric skin shocks outright.
“The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) and its members respect the personal dignity and worth of every human being and affirm the right of every individual to effective behavioral treatment and freedom from inappropriate, unnecessary and/or or intrusive,” the statement read. . “The principles of behavior analysis form the foundation of the professional practice of applied behavior analysis and are essential to ethically sound and effective treatment programs. In keeping with these values, we strongly oppose the use of contingent electric skin shock (CESS) under all conditions.
The new statement, which now represents the organization’s official position, goes on to cite limited supporting evidence for electric skin shock and notes that it is an “ethically questionable practice”.
Zoe Gross, advocacy director at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which has long protested the ABAI for allowing the Rotenberg Center to participate in its conferences, said the group’s vote against electric shocks was significant.
“Until this month, the ABAI had fully supported the Judge Rotenberg Center. Although they have no official position on the use of electric skin shock, they have allowed the JRC to sponsor and exhibit at their conference, and have held several conference sessions over the years in which the JRC staff presented the use of skin shocks in ABA,” Gross said. “The results of the membership vote indicate that while the ABAI leadership supports the JRC, the broader field of ABA professionals does not.”
Gross said his group now hopes the ABAI will work with them to ask federal lawmakers to include a ban on the use of electric shock devices in a legislative package that is expected to be approved before the end of the year. .
Neither the ABAI nor the Rotenberg Center responded to a request for comment on the new position statement. However, the Rotenberg Center said it would continue to push back against congressional efforts to ban the use of electric shocks.
“Parents and guardians of Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) clients will continue to work to ensure that life-saving electrical stimulation device (ESD) treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed.. Allowing the use of ESDs as part of treatment plans for these clients is a matter of life and death,” the Rotenberg Center said in a statement.
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