The continued use of pain-inducing, torturous punishment and justification from multiple professionals in our field only damages our relationship as behavior analysts with humanity overall. If we’re not willing to speak up about shock, what will it take?Katelyn Kendrick, M.,Ed, BCBA, QBA, IBA, Denver, Colorado
NeuroClastic published a survey collecting data about attitudes towards the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a residential facility in Canton, Massachusetts. The JRC is the only facility in the world that uses a graduated electronic decelerator (GED) to deliver painful skin shocks to autistic and otherwise disabled children and adults as a part of their behavior plan.
The survey was open to professionals who work in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). For 30 years, disability advocates have been engaged in activism in an attempt to stop what the United Nations has deemed torture.
Because the JRC is an ABA facility, and the Applied Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) annual conferences regularly host representatives from the JRC advocating in favor of electroshock punishment, NeuroClastic wanted to measure behavior professionals’ attitudes towards the JRC’s use of the GED.
I have been in the field of ABA for 13 years. I have worked with severe forms of self-injury (which BCBA’s often use to justify the use of the GED), successfully without aversive interventions. I am appalled that we continue to allow electric shock of human beings as a form of therapy. We need to stand up and speak out. We need to protect the humans we are committed to serving. We need to collectively demand transparency from the JRC.BCBA, Clinical Supervisor, Clinical Director
We also wanted to determine how much support we could garner from professionals in the industry responsible for allowing this practice to continue.
NeuroClastic has been consistently in opposition to ABA as an intervention for autism for several reasons, but among the most pressing is that an ethics code that allows for the use of electroshock as punishment can not prevent abuse.
However, there is an active and growing constituency of behavior analysis professionals, many of whom are autistic and otherwise neurodivergent themselves, engaged in activism in an attempt to reform the field, dismantle ableist structures within the field, and center autistic voices in efforts to reform.
Our prediction was that a majority of behavior analysts professionals were opposed to the practices at the JRC. Our objective was to measure attitudes towards this use of contingent shock and to garner support for efforts to ban the use of the GED.
I am appalled that this practice was ever deemed acceptable, let alone that it continues to be used. ABAI & the BACB need to take action. Furthermore, I am actively seeking to increase awareness and get more behavior analysts involved with this fight. I am sorry I wasn’t aware and knowledgeable of this issue until just recently. There is no justification for this torture!
As an autistic individual, I can only imagine the horror that the victims of these shock devices– that are at least 10 times more powerful than a stungun– are experiencing. If my life had been just a little different, could that have been me? If I was born in the wrong zip code or had the wrong supports, could I have ended up in a place where receiving a 30 mA shock for not answering a question in 3 seconds or saying no (which is every person’s right) is standard? How is this practice even remotely allowed under any of the BACB’s ethics codes, let alone the last two updates?Brian Middleton, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA-TN, the Bearded Behaviorist
Editor’s note: the full results of the survey, minus the open-ended responses, can be accessed in a text-based PDF here.
The first page of the survey contained the following text:
This survey is being conducted by NeuroClastic, an autistic-led nonprofit organization. We are seeking input from professionals who work within the field of behavior analysis.
We are administering this survey to collect data on attitudes regarding the use of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), a device that delivers a high powered skin shock. This device is used as a level 3 aversive (corporal punishment) at the Judge Rotenburg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, as a part of behavior plans for children and adults with disabilities. At the end of this survey, you will be given the opportunity to share your contact information. This is optional. The only identifying information collected for this survey is what you choose to provide.
It should be noted that the use of electroshock punishment is only practiced at Judge Rotenberg Center. Use of the GED has been declared torture by the United Nations (UN) Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The only way people can justify shocking children several times a day while being strapped down to a board on the floor have to have a sick twisted mentality that these children deserve to be tortured. They don’t see these children as people. They see them as inferior animals that need to be brought to submission of the master. It’s disgusting and people with this mentality should not be trusted to work with people in any capacity. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, respect, love and care. Criminal charges should be brought upon the leadership at JRC.RBT, NY, USA
1. Prior to this survey, how familiar were you with the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts?
While only a quarter of ABA professionals rated their knowledge about JRC as “very familiar,” the vast majority of the Autistic community are keenly aware of the practices that are common at JRC. Disability rights activists have been fighting to end electroshock punishment for thirty years.
The answers to this question illustrate a divide in awareness of the autistic community’s grievances with the field of ABA and a lack of engagement from the ABA professional community with the primary stakeholders of the profession. Estimates range from 62-90% of behavior analytic professionals have autism as a central focus of their professional duties.
The only reason that the GED is considered appropriate for use, especially given the known history of it being used in ways that do not follow behavior analytic principles, is because of disabilism. If we as a field took seriously the experiences and humanity of disabled people, and particularly disabled young people of color, there is no way that we would stand behind this.Elizabeth Miller, BCBA, Massachusetts
2. Do you feel that any of the following are acceptable aversive treatments when less intrusive treatments were not successful? (Check all that apply)
A frequently-cited grievance from the autistic community is that security objects, sensory toys, and even AAC devices that serve as an individual’s primary form of communication are often taken from autistic children in order to shape behaviors. A verbal reprimand (“It’s not kind to hit others”) is a reasonable organic approach that does not create a power differential and send the message, “I am the one who gives you what you love. I am the one who takes what you love.
It is unclear why more behavior professionals believe that electroshock is more appropriate than spraying with water or vinegar.
The use of GED devices goes against everything the field of Behavior Analysis has and is continuing to work toward in order to ensure positive and safe impacts of therapy for clients. The use of GED devices at the JRC violates the ethics code of the BACB in relation to using least restrictive practices and ensuring all other possible interventions are attempted before punishment. The JRC is a black eye on the field of ABA and is holding us back from making socially significant changes at a National and even global level. Any person under BACB certification with the JRC should undergo an ethics board review and be banned from practicing if found guilty of violations.BCBA
JRC is confusing treatment with abuse. It’s shameful and inhumane.Cait Veatch, BCBA, St. Louis, MO
3. Were you aware that the Judge Rotenberg Center, a residential facility in Canton, Massachusetts, uses electroshock punishment on children and adults with disabilities as a part of their behavior plan?
As a social work professional and behaviour tech I feel ABA as therapy format needs to stop. ABA is not a therapy, it is a science. We have segregated ourselves from other sciences, calling psychology ‘mentalism’- but we need to work together. If we truly care for the people we want to serve, we need to step up and stop ABA as therapy format and work towards an integration of data driven intervention in psychotherapy settings.LCSW, Behavior Tech
In college I toured the JRC for a class. The guide walking us around the facility told us that shock was used only on individuals who had extreme behaviors such as attacking pregnant women, ripping own skin off their faces, etc. They told us that the GED devices were used only after all other options were trialed. It is upsetting that they portrayed this safe place to us while we walked through the halls of what others probably cringe through walking daily. There is no need for this. Ever.Anna L., BCBA, CT
4. The following are from a behavior plan made public by a former JRC resident. These target behaviors resulted in skin shocks from the GED device. For which of the following behaviors do you feel it is appropriate to use level 3 aversives in the form of painful electric skin shocks? Please select all that apply.
A total of 94% of survey respondents found that none of the behaviors taken from Jennifer Msumba’s published behavior plan (Retrieved from AutisticHoya.net, August 25, 2021) were appropriate behaviors for skin shocks.
The use of GED is disgusting. Allowing a facility to torture your child for behaviors deemed “unacceptable” is abuse, point blank period. There is no situation that I can think of that would excuse this method. As an autistic adult, my heart is broken for the patients at this center. Autistic people are humans, not animals. And to that point, this kind of treatment towards actual animals is ILLEGAL? So why is JRC still torturing our children?Megan, RBT, Pennsylvania
The intentional use of the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED) and other aversives at JRC and support by leadership organizations is causing and will continue to cause long term trauma to humans. Our science has produced many wonderful and helpful technologies for behavior change. But, this may all be for naught as the GED permanently tarnishes the reputation of the field of Applied Behavior Analysis and its practitioners and jeopardizes the long term sustainability of our field so long as we continue to directly or through complacency support torture of humans in our care.Eric Zeissig, BCBA, Oregon
Most people who were not diametrically opposed to the GED indicated in the open-ended “other” field that behaviors like “hitting self” or “running away” may be appropriate for use of the GED only if there is an imminent threat to their life, like they were running towards traffic, risking traumatic brain injury or death by banging their head against a wall. Others specified that shocks to stop hitting or choking others should only be done if someone is at risk of serious harm or death.
I’m disgusted that the JRC continues to use GED at all. There isn’t any single thing I can think of that would warrant this kind of abuse. Let’s be honest, it’s abuse. If a parent was doing this to their child, we’d be mandated to report it, but because the JRC has money and connections, our field continues to let this ableist abuse happen. We need to do better as a field and end this immediately.Amber Staton, RBT, Michigan
5. What is your role in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA)? Select all that apply.
Of those ten people who chose, “I do not work in applied behavior analysis,” most were graduate students about to become BCBAs. Further, of those who entered “other (please specify)”, many were BCBAs with additional professional titles, like speech and language pathologists, special educators, professors, or social workers.
6. The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) uses a graduated electronic decelerator (GED) with one or more electrodes placed on a disabled child or adult’s body. These devices are worn in a backpack with wires coming out of it and attached in up to five locations on the body. They are worn 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, even during sleep and showers. The majority of the individuals wearing a GED are Black or Brown and most are nonspeaking. How do you feel about this practice? (Select all that apply)
Despite any professionals personal opinion on the use of positive punishment as a behavioral princple, the JRC needs to be shut down and the GED needs to be banned. They have clearly abused their power and used the GED to control their students, not create meaningful behavior change. The GED should not be used because it’s been shown to be torture. If you have to resort to corporal punishment to change behavior, you’re doing it wrong.Rachel Pankin, BCBA, Maryland
At no point in time is the use of the GED humane or ethical. I am against the use and feel that whomever does use it should have their BCBA credentials revoked and charges should be brought against them for abuse.Tiffany Hughes, BCBA, New Jersey
7. For nearly 30 years, disability advocates have fought to end the use of the GED. The FDA issued a ban on the GED that was overturned. We are asking for you to join us as an accomplice in direct activism. Which, if any, of the following would you be willing to do as we call for an immediate moratorium on the use of the GED?
Of those who specified “other,” some of the following were responses:
I think the only acceptable use of GED is when the behavior we are attempting to punish has significant risk of harm, such as eye gouging, head banging that leads to concussions, extreme aggression. It needs to be strictly monitored and reviewed by a separate entity on a continuous basis.
Our field should not use our science as a means of therapy.
I am appalled that ABA is used as a therapy in other countries as opposed to a science which supports (speech/psychotherapy/occupational) therapists in making data based decisions.
If there are self harm behaviors severe enough to do really serious damage (requiring significant medical treatment, like poking an eye out, severe concussion, etc. And these are not responsive to all other interventions, I can maybe see a case, but I do not work with these clients nor am I familiar with the literature on treatment of behaviors this dangerous)
I believe there are few cases, such as serious self-injury where the client is causing life-threatening harm to himself, where aversives should be used. I know that historically JRC has treated these cases. I am disappointed and angry that punishment is being used to “treat” such trivial behaviors such as out of seat and socially insignificant behaviors like stimming.
I’ve worked with former residents of the JRC. I have seen the negative/harmful effects and PTSD that this place has caused. This is a non-negotiable. JRC and these practices have got to go.
I think the JRC may be our most conclusive proof that ABA needs to be completely abolished
This is a violation of the trust that our clients and their families have for us.
These interventions are a clear violation of the clients basic human rights. No intervention should use induced pain to control behavior.
I am ashamed that during grad school I was forced to take a C grade for NOT writing about the benefits of GED. The paper was a risk/benefit paper on shock and I refused to write about any benefit.
I have been absolutely appalled by ABAI’s response to this situation and the fact that this continues. I got into this field to help people and I think this has really harmed the perception of our field further and is abuse. Behavior analysis done correctly prevents any need for these measures.
I am infuriated by the lack of training in how ineffective punishment is, and it’s continual presentation as a “necessary evil” or the same stories about often singular people whose dangerous behaviour was changed. Respected leaders and professors giving their hot take that the resistance to cruel and ineffective treatment is an emotional reaction and really, rationally, some humans deserve their abuse.
It is torture and everyone involved including law makers should be charged with torture per the United Nations agreements.
I have been questioning my own involvement in this field as a BCBA as more Autistic people have been speaking out about abuse in ABA.
Of the remaining comments, the majority were versions of “only in extreme, life-threatening situations,” many listing the specific behaviors of gouging out eyes or repeatedly banging their heads into a wall at risk of brain injury or death.
This consistency in communication regarding the JRC, specifically with references to eye gouging and skull shattering, indicates that a narrative about the use of contingent shock has successfully indoctrinated many people to believe that shocks are only administered to intervene on life-threatening circumstances; however, as is evidenced by the testimonies of former residents of JRC, completely innocuous behaviors like hand play and pressurizing the ears— stimming behaviors autistic people regularly engage in order to help regulate their sensory systems— are being “treated” by corporal punishment.
This is incredibly inhumane; the practices of the JRC make me sick.Maria Cornish, BCBA, Tucson, AZ
I categorically condemn the use of contingent shock treatment at the JRC and in Applied Behavior Analysis in general. I believe the practices at the JRC violate the BACB’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts, specifically 2.09a, 2.09c, 4.08d, 4.09, and 6.01a.Ken Baumgartner, BCBA, Tucson, Arizona
Proponents of the JRC argue that use of the GED is used with consent, but built in to JRC’s structure is the systematic stripping of consent to ensure the resident being admitted cannot say no. By practice, every person placed under shock at JRC is first hauled into court to remove their decision making rights— that frequently they will never, ever get back.
The JRC files a guardianship petition for any individual for whom aversives are added to their IEP, and the court then grants the right to consent to a third party.
JRC submits a detailed proposed treatment plan to the Court. The Court must decide: (1) whether or not the student is competent to make his/her own treatment decisions; and (2) if competent, would he or she have chosen the treatment?SAFEGUARDS FOR THE USE OF AVERSIVES WITH STUDENTS AT JRC
If you have to shock someone for trying to remove a device that is strapped to their body and designed to give a skin shock much more painful than a cattle prod, you have not obtained their consent to shock them.
How anyone is coming to the conclusion that these children and adults would choose to be strapped to a backpack they wear twenty-four hours per day, even during sleep and showers, and shocked with a current many times stronger than a cattle prod is a mystery.
If you shock someone for attempting to run away, you have not obtained their consent.
If you shock someone for attempting to remove a shock device, you have not obtained their consent. All of JRC’s residents are all capable of consent, even in the absence of having access to using words as communication. Their attempts to resist the GED are evidence that they do not consent.
The JRC blatantly violates the code of ethics and not only has almost no one spoken up, our field continues to defend them, give them a platform, and then have the audacity to say “ABA is under attack.” Childish and pathetic. Until these practices are condemned and put to an end, we don’t have the right to complain about anything.Rachel Dial, BCBA, Illinois
According to the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts,
2.09 Treatment/Intervention Efficacy.
(a) Clients have a right to effective treatment (i.e., based on the research literature and adapted to the individual client). Behavior analysts always have the obligation to advocate for and educate the client about scientifically supported, most-effective treatment procedures. Effective treatment procedures have been validated as having both long-term and short-term benefits to clients and society.
NeuroClastic collected responses from almost 800 autistic people and those who are adjacent to autistic people (family members, providers, educators, etc.) regarding their attitudes about the use of the GED on predominantly autistic persons. In measuring the psychological impact of the use of the GED on society, it becomes clear that autistic people and those adjacent to them are severely, actively, negatively impacted by this “treatment.”
My heart shattered to a million pieces when I heard of this absolute travesty. Federally approved torture. I feel like flapping my arms to fly and flee a world which tolerates such abominable acts. Eradicating our stims is a brazen and barbaric attempt at crushing our autistic greatness. I’ll never understand what threat autism poses to motivate this neuro-typical quest to enslave us. I feel our voices are lost amongst ears incapable of sensing a world beyond the familiar. It should go without saying, but we autistics are not dogs. Stop your demeaning and medieval ABA therapies and electric shock. #StoptheshockAnantha, autistic teen, from NeuroClastic’s community survey
Dehumanised. It’s dehumanising. This would never be allowed to happen to an abled. This sends the message that I am not human. I am less. I am worthy of the same respect and consideration as every one else. I feel further beaten down by a world that seeks to destroy us. For their own comfort. Their own privilege.Signed as “Broken autistic,” from NeuroClastic’s community survey
It’s sick! They’re torturing human beings just because they are different!!! How about they actually open a book and learn about Autistic people and how our brains work instead of just trying to train us like dogs. It is absolutely terrorizing and threatening that this could ever happen to me or my family.Michelle B., NeuroClastic’s community survey
The use of electrical shocks to torture autistic children at the Judge Rotenberg Center fits neatly into a pattern I’ve encountered both in my own life and noticed those of other autistics: a single-minded determination among neurotypicals to force [us] to act and think as they do, with no concern for the harm they cause us or for the agency they steal from us. To them autism makes us less than human, so there is no brutality too extreme to use if they think it may make us act as they want us to. They have murdered us by electrocution there before and will do so again unless we put an end to it.Mason Weiser, NeuroClastic community survey
I am the adult child who would have had these devices used on me. I know how it feels to have parents who saw me and my behaviors as so reprehensible that I deserved to be broken. I was the recipient of corporal punishment— not electroshock, but similarly cruel.
It worked. It did break me. I’m covered in self harm scars that I can hide under my clothes. I never sleep because of PTSD flashbacks. My stomach is full of ulcers, and I am always angry.
I oscillate between wanting to fight back and reliving the hell of my childhood. I still get blamed by my abusers for being a failure, decades later.
Knowing the government has allowed this makes me struggle to exist. I cannot stand to live in a world where people have such disdain for us that they endorse state-sanctioned torture on children.
Everyone knows that this is politics and privilege. It’s white colonizers at the top of the ABA industry where there’s a monopoly on autistic lives.
I hate my country for allowing this. It has sent the message that we are disposable and worthy of torture and death. They’re physically punished for self-harm. What kind of convoluted logic is that?
I can barely stand to remain alive. I don’t know how people aren’t setting themselves on fire on the front lawn of JRC in protest. None of us will ever feel safe until this torture hell is shut down permanently.Signed “Autistic abuse survivor,” NeuroClastic community survey
This ruling further demonstrates that disabled individuals are second-class citizens whom the government views as subhumans. It is illegal to use electroshock in interrogations of suspected terrorists because it is a form of torture, but the United States government will allow its use against disabled children.Kristin Wood-Hegner, Austistic Mother of an Autistic Daughter and Founder of Divergify, NeuroClastic community survey
Demonstrably, as is evident from our survey, justifying what the United Nations has deemed torture on disabled people causes harm to society. It undermines the trust that disabled people and their loved ones have in the institutions who fail to protect even their most basic rights.
The use of the GED— the very notion that it exists— proliferates societal attitudes and biases that disabled people are less deserving of basic human decency, autonomy, and respect. It sends the message that lawmakers and the “gold standard” therapy aggressively advertised for autistic people endorse torture against them for merely existing as disabled.
Electroshock should never be used on people, regardless of the behavior. I hate that JRC is still using these unethical and inhumane practices on disabled people who are not given the chance to defend themselves or refuse this treatment. While the problem behaviors may decrease, so does that person’s self esteem.Julie Angstadt, BCBA, owner, and clinical director of Hummingbird ABA Therapy
There’s a preponderance of evidence demonstrating that the use of corporal punishment causes harm and is ineffective. There does not exist an empirically supported base of evidence that the GED provides long and short term benefits; therefore, this procedure is in violation of the BACB’s ethics code.
Research is vast that the impact of corporal punishment, while sometimes having short term impacts on positive behavior change may actually cause behaviors to worsen over time. This impact can be magnified for students with disabilities.
See Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Students with Disabilities in US Public Schools (ACLU, Human Rights Watch, 2009).
The JRC is taught in ABA coursework as an example of the gross abuse of positive punishment procedures. It is used to teach new BCBAs that just because a treatment is effective, does not mean it is ethical or improves a clients quality of life. The JRC is a stain on the name of ABA as a science, and ABA organizations internationally should denounce it and their practices.BCBA
An Appeal to the Professional Behavior Analytic Community
There are people in your field who have more power over autistic lives, welfare, and futures than any human should have over another. They have more power than the United Nations and the US Government to influence autistic access to rights and self-determination.
Robert Ross, who heads the largest special interest group (SIG) in all of ABA, the Autism SIG, is also the president of MassABA, the professional organization for Massachusetts. He is on the board of directors of the new “Progressive Behavior Analyst Autism Council,” which “was established in order to provide an elite credential in the field of ABA as it applies to intervention provided to individuals diagnosed with ASD that serves both stakeholders and certified persons.” (PBAAC website). Also on this council is Joshua Pritchard, who is on the board of directors at Judge Rotenberg Center. Robert Ross has used his privilege to encourage ABA professionals to disregard autistic advocates and has charged money for people to listen.
Ron Leaf and John McEachin (who is also on the PBAAC board) have their hands in stained abuses dating back to Lovaas. Justin Leaf, Ron’s son, has been described by an anonymous BCBA as “having a carte blanche reign of terror” in the behavior analytic community. There is a small and relentless network of highly privileged people who use ABA as an engine of power to make decisions like a sadistic oligarchy. They line their pockets with our blood and tears.
Your most privileged members hold too much power. No efforts you make to reform your field or earn the trust of the communities you serve will be received as long as leaders of your field continue to hold ubiquitous decision-making power to influence the education of BCBAs, to charge for podcast rants and grant continuing education credits while asking people to disrespect and ignore autistic advocates, to actively bully autistic advocates and nonspeakers, to suppress communication rights, and to operate with impunity outside the bounds of competence.
Your field advantages those who play well with the power structures and makes implicit and explicit threats to those who don’t.
We– the autistic community– have receipts. But you haven’t heard of us. You don’t listen to us. You’re conditioned with effective ABA to receive us as a “small but vocal minority,” and to disregard our voices– from the time we are toddlers. You have put us, as a community, on “planned ignore.”
The double standards are profound. Tens of thousands of advocates take a unanimous stand, but we are disregarded because we do not, as individuals, have an “evidence base”– an impossible standard. We are asked to show evidence of our diagnoses of trauma and autism before we can even be heard. Yet the JRC provides “documentation,” not an “evidence base,” every time they approach a court to strip another disabled person of their rights.
The autistic community has been trying, for decades, to end the use of painful level III aversives at JRC. The time is now for you to form alliances within your community, to organize, and to #StopTheShocks.
Editor’s note: this list may grow as we are made aware of new efforts to #StopTheShock.
1. Visit Lydia X. Z. Brown’s Living Archive & Repository on the Judge Rotenberg Center’s Abuses for comprehensive information and background on JRC and familiarize yourself with survivor stories
NOWHERE does shock or torture have a place in an ethical educational setting.Lisa Rhodes, BCBA, LBA, Virginia
2. Call Nathan Blenkush, Director of Clinical Services at the JRC, and let him know how you feel about his role in the facilitation of aversive skin shocks on disabled children and adults. Office: 781-828-2202, extension 2330
The use of GED on disabled individuals is appalling. The fact that I even have to write this hurts my soul. The GED is used on HUMANS, with wants, needs, and feelings. The fact that I have written personally to members of the BACB and ABAI in a professional capacity and received no response is disheartening. We need to do better. We need immediate action within our field.Samantha, BCBA, MA
3. Several bills to ban aversives in Massachusetts have been abandoned after being referred to the committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Currently, Bill H.225, which would ban the use of aversives at JRC, is there. You can visit JudgeRotenberg.Center to email the committee members using a form and template that takes only seconds, and call or Tweet committee members.
4. If you work in behavior analysis, please contact your professional organizations and ask them to join you in committing to #StopTheShock.
5. Use AuTeach’s script (with contact information) to urge professional organizations to join in efforts to ban aversive shocks.
- Announcement: Understanding Autism Through The Autistic Lens – Virtual Conference - September 9, 2021
- 900 ABA Professionals Have Weighed in on the Use of Electroshock at Judge Rotenberg Center - August 26, 2021
- ABA Horror Stories Are Far Too Common - August 17, 2021