In The Politics of Autism, I write:
For those who remain at larger residential institutions, the horrors of yesteryear have generally ended. In 2012, however, a ten-year-old video surfaced, showing disturbing image of an electric shock device at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton Massachusetts. Staffers tied one student to a restraint board and shocked him 31 times over seven hours, ignoring his screamed pleas to stop. The Rotenberg Center is the only one in the nation that admits to using electric shocks on people with developmental disabilities, including autism. Center officials said that they had stopped using restraint boards but insisted that shocks were necessary in extreme cases to prevent officials insist the shock program is a last resort that prevents people with severe disorders from hurting themselves or others. Though a majority of the FDA’s Neurological Devices Panel said that such devises pose “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury,” the agency had not banned them as of 2014.
At The Wall Street Journal, Harvard professor Paul Peterson argues against the proposed FDA ban on electrical stimulus devices, citing the example of his own 45-year-old son David.
Denying treatment to people with disabilities when it is available to others violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. In its 1997 ruling in Judge Rotenberg Educational Center Inc. v. Commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed a lower-court finding of contempt against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for its interference with the use of electronic stimulus devices. The FDA’s proposal ignores that decision.
The FDA claims that alternative treatments are available. It is wrong. After trying many other institutions and therapies, including the drugs Mellaril, Thorazine, Haldol, Ritalin and Noctec, David in 1988 entered the highly regarded Neurobehavioral Unit at the Kennedy Krieger Institute that specializes in the treatment of self-injurious behaviors. Specialists explored a wide variety of treatment protocols, including various drug therapies. After four months, the center’s experts, finding no effective alternative, agreed that placement at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center was the best available option for David. Our local school district authorized the placement.
The FDA asserts that skin shocks are no longer necessary but it provides no documentation that drugs are effective for people like my son. In the past, drug therapy aggravated David’s self-injurious behavior. The use of psychotropic drugs also poses multiple risks of physical and psychological side effects. By contrast, skin shocks have no demonstrated side effects beyond a temporary redness to the skin that usually disappears within minutes.