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January 9, 2020

Averting aversion therapy

Last updated on February 16, 2021

Torture in the name of medicine: a Massachusetts school that electrocutes its students


Catching wind of an old and cruel tradition

It’s now officially 2020, though apparently, not everyone got the memo. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JREC), located in Canton, Massachusetts, is stuck in the Victorian era as it continues to administer painful electric shocks to 1 in 5 of the center’s residents—many of whom are autistic.[1]School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Is Moving To Ban The Practice | npr (These electric shocks are not to be confused with ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, which is noninvasive).

Naturally, the JREC has incited the anger of disability rights groups such as Disability Rights International, and now the FDA is moving to ban the cruel practice permanently.[2]School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Is Moving To Ban The Practice | npr Many—myself included—view the use of painful or disturbing stimuli to change behavior as torture, cruel, and a denial of basic human rights. This Pavlovian technique is known as an “aversive” method or punishment, which came to prominence after an American Psychologist by the name of Joseph Cautela popularized the technique.[3]Aversion therapy | Britannica

It’s fantastic that the Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey, has taken notice of this practice at the JREC, and is actively working to ban the practice. It’s unfortunate that this practice of aversive therapy, which grew popular in the United States as a means to treat alcoholism, homosexuality, and autism (though it was known under various labels such as childhood schizophrenia or feeblemindedness in the first half of the century).*[4]School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Is Moving To Ban The Practice | npr[5]An electric shock therapy stops self-harm among the autistic, but at what cost? | The Washington Post[6]Childhood psychosis or schizophrenia | The Autism History Project

To read more on the history of terms used to refer to autism, have a look at:

A timeline of autism classifications

The burden lies with the subjects

The JREC staff administers the shocks via proprietary equipment it dubs the graduated electronic decelerator (GED). The GED can administer up to nearly five milliamp shocks that last two seconds. Behavior deemed offensive or self-injurious will prompt a staff member to apply the shocks. Even something as simple as standing up from your desk without permission will prompt a preliminary shock of lesser strength as a warning.[7]An electric shock therapy stops self-harm among the autistic, but at what cost? | The Washington Post

Embrace Autism | Averting aversion therapy | illustration ElectricityBolt

Opponents of this practice cite how it not only injures the student but may lead to serious posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which some of the students already exhibit symptoms of.[8]An electric shock therapy stops self-harm among the autistic, but at what cost? | The Washington Post One such student, Jennifer “Jen” Msumba, filed a lawsuit against the center alleging mistreatment. She experiences symptoms of PTSD to this day and says that other students she keeps in contact with also struggle with psychological issues stemming from the aversive therapy they’d received.[9]School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Is Moving To Ban The Practice | npr

It really, really, really hurts. I want everyone to know because I am still suffering.

And I know other people that were there who I am still in contact with that are still suffering.


Averting aversion therapy

It’s hard to see the efficacy of such practices and it certainly seems out of place in the 21st century. Aversive therapy has been condemned by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture and the U.S. Department of Justice.

I don’t know about you, but if an international expert on torture condemns “therapy” as inhumane, then that ought to be a serious cause of concern. It’s disheartening to learn that in the modern-day this sort of inhumane and downright despicable way we treat our fellow humans—autistic or otherwise—continues in one of the most industrious nations in the world.


An illustrated portrait of Matt Medina.

Also have a look at:

An autism diagnosis later in life
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