The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to ban devices used by the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, the only place in the country known to use skin shocks as aversive conditioning for aggressive patients.
It's a rare move by the FDA, following years of complaints from disability rights' groups and even a U.N. report that the shocks are tantamount to torture.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says the shock therapy has raised a lot of questions.
"We really wanted to take a much more focused and rigorous look at it," Hamburg said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's a lot of concern about the downside of this approach and the harm and the risk to the patients receiving it."
Rotenberg must get a court's approval to begin administering skin shocks to a student. The center uses a graduated electronic decelerator, or GED, that is attached to the arms or legs. If the student acts aggressively — head-banging, throwing furniture, attacking someone — then a center worker can press a button to activate the electrode, delivering a two-second shock to the skin.
Cheryl McCollins sued the center for malpractice after her autistic son, Andre, was shocked more than 30 times over approximately seven hours in 2002. In a surveillance video played in court, Andre is seen lying face down with his arms and legs tied to a restraining board. He can be heard screaming, "Help me. No." The center settled the suit.
The center says that "is not the same treatment approach JRC would take today." Crookes, the center's executive director, said skin shocks would be suspended earlier and the center would take a closer look at potential triggers of aggression.
Sharon Wood of Charlottesville, Virginia, fears a ban on skin shocks would return her 21-year-old son, Joshua, to the violent behavior that used to force her to lock herself in a room with her young daughter. Joshua Wood is profoundly autistic. His parents say they tried everything but the only thing that worked was the shocks.
"Do not take away what is saving his life," Sharon Wood said in an interview as the FDA considers the ban. "Don't take this away until you are convinced there are better alternatives."