A voltage meter showing the ohm knob from 0 to 270 Joules

The Shocking Truth About ABA, Autism, and Abuse11 min read

Last month I attended a conference.  The conference was aimed at medical and para-medical professionals and focused on dealing with difficult behaviors.

I don’t normally go anywhere near the big crowds and “networking” of conferences, but this time a friend went with me.  We both wanted to hear the keynote speaker.  She’s a famous advocate who has been educating people and sharing her personal experiences for decades.

While I have read several of her books, I had never had a chance to see her in person.  And let me tell you– that speech was a real call to action.

Her voice trembled with rage and frustration as she asked us– asked the world, really– why aversives are still being used to change behavior.

Large scale literature reviews have found plentiful evidence that use of aversives increases aggression and anxiety.  Punishment is linked to higher cortisol levels and poorer family bonds.

Most important, the studies have found that professionals who use aversives are less successful and have poorer outcomes than those who eschew them.

Why, despite evidence of trauma and correlations with worsening behaviour in the future, is it okay for professionals to systematically abuse the innocent beings in their care?

Because the law is clear: It IS okay.

One practitioner in California went to court because the rough handling of one of her charges resulted in permanent spinal damage.  The practitioner was brought up on cruelty charges, but she held up a book written by another professional and showed the judge that the method she used was described in this book.

So they let her off.  It wasn’t cruelty, apparently, even though it caused severe and permanent damage, because a book said it was standard protocol.

What about electric shocks, or “electric stimulation” as the practitioners prefer to call it?

How could it be possible, in this day and age, that this sort of behaviour modification is still seen as acceptable?

After all, the speaker at the conference pointed out, if word got out that the local aquarium was using electric shock on their penguins, there would be massive public outrage.

But for some reason, because so-called experts recommend it, because so-called professionals do it, we allow electric shocks to be performed on our own family members.

All of the time she was talking, I was thinking of the videos I have seen of autistic children being abused at the Judge Rotenberg Center in the United States.

All of the time she was talking, I thought about the children who have died because they were restrained, pinned to the ground, and suffocated by their own teachers.

Throughout the lecture, I was drowning in the accounts I have heard from autistic people who were traumatized by inhumane and aversive behaviour “therapy.”

“There continues to be more and more research coming out on the use of aversives– positive punishment and negative reinforcement– showing that it is side-effect laden and just not okay.”

Jean Donaldson, 2019

By the time she was done, I was near tears.  Because she was right, of course.  People do seem to think that cruelty to dogs is acceptable, all because there are books that recommend it.

Oh, yeah, did I not mention?  She wasn’t talking about autistic people.  She was talking about dogs.

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I was at the BCSPCA Behaviour Symposium, and the keynote speaker was Jean Donaldson, the celebrated dog trainer and author of The Culture Clash, a fantastic book that demonstrates the communication gap between humans and their dogs.

Her speech was passionate, and gratifying to hear.  But as I’ve said, all I could think during her talk was that dogs still had it better than autistic children.

After all, here I was at an entire symposium dedicated to the humane training and treatment of dogs.  Everyone in that room, from veterinarians to dog trainers and shelter workers, unanimously agreed that electric shock is unnecessary and barbaric.

There has never been an entire symposium dedicated to discussing humane therapies for autism.  ABA International did hold a big conference recently.  As part of their Ethics section, they invited the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) to speak about their effective use of electric shock and other aversives on non-consenting human beings.

Jean Donaldson, BCSPCA Behaviour Symposium, 2019

(Watch this video at your own risk, but do not close your eyes to the humanity and the pain that is contained within)

The United Nations has repeatedly described the “treatments” at the JRC as torture.

“I feel very strongly that electricity applied to a person’s body creates a very extreme form of pain.  There a lot of lingering consequences including mental illness that can be devastating.”

Juan Mendez, UN Specrial Rapporteur and survivor of electrocution torture, regarding the JRC

Here is a student of the school describing her experiences there.  Again, it is not easy to hear.

Here is another account from a former student there:

“The GED IS harmful.  Even the GED-1.  I was burned many times, and I still have scars on my stomach from being repeatedly shocked there, by the FDA approved GED-1.  The electrodes had actually burned into my skin.  I experienced long term loss of sensation and numbness in my lower left leg, after getting a shock there.  I felt searing pain all the way down to the bottom of my foot, and was left with no feeling in my skin from the knee down for about a year.  Again, this was with the GED-1.

After complaining to JRC nursing about my leg, they told me to tell the Neurologist about it during a follow up visit for a suspected seizure.  He asked the staff what that device was on my leg, and they explained to him it was an electrode.  After their explanation, the Neurologist said, “Well, I don’t know what that thing is, but it needs to come off.”

JRC left the device off my leg for about a year, then decided on their own, without sending me back to a Neurologist, it was ok to put it back.  I have seen students with torso electrodes accidentally placed on their spine area, get a shock there and be violently bent backwards.

[…]

I got shocked for tic like body movements, for which I have no control over, and which don’t hurt me or anybody else.  I would be shocked for waving my hand in front of my face for more than 5 seconds, for closing my ears with my fingers, which I do when things get too loud, because I cannot tolerate too much noise.

I would be shocked for wrapping my foot around the leg of my chair, for tensing up my body or my fingers, and the list goes on and on.  There was a period of time where I and many of the other students were getting shocked for having 5 verbal behaviors in an hour.  A verbal behavior is a minor behavior like talking to yourself, noises (such as clearing your throat), or talking without permission.” 

Judge Rotenberg Survivor’s Letter

This school was invited to lecture on Ethics at an ABA conference this year – 2019.

At the symposium, they discussed their recent trial, whereby they had to go to court, and they held up their books and told a judge that “level III aversives” conform to “the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

So the judge ruled that it was permissible.

In other words, just like with the dog trainer who paralyzed a dog, the cruelty was acceptable because experts said it was.

Perhaps you want to point out that the JRC is only one institution– that electric “stimulation” is not routinely used on autistic children.  And that is true.  But the big important point is that it is allowed.  It is permitted.  It is accepted.  It is even encouraged.

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This isn’t a small splinter faction of ABA practitioners.  This is a practice that is accepted and recognized by the certifying and educational bodies surrounding ABA.

As I have discussed previously, there is nothing in the Certification Board’s code of ethics which prohibits electrocuting children.

(It should also be noted that the ABAI Symposium, despite having two hundred talks and speakers, had no lecture regarding informed consent or communication with the recipients of ABA therapy– only the parents and family members.)

ABA International is inviting people who electrocute children to speak at their symposiums about why it is good and how to do it properly.

They are not including autistic recipients of ABA to speak about what applications can be traumatic or harmful.

They are not including speakers who discuss alternatives to electric shock to control violent behaviours.

They are not mentioning that people of color and people from a background of poverty are more vulnerable to ABA abuses.

This sends a very clear message to all other ABA practitioners– electrocution is a valid option which should be considered.

It is specifically because of this, because the professional regulatory organizations allow, condone, and even encourage the JRC, that their abusive methods were upheld in court.

The judge in this case basically said, “Yeah, it sounds bad, but all of the experts and professional organizations are indicating that it is permissible and warranted, so what do I know?  I should listen to them.”

If the certifying bodies issued statements condemning it, and if they revoked the certifications of those practicing it, if they put a focus on speakers who present methods to find and heal the roots of violent behaviour, the FDA would stop it.

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Hear This Call

If you agree that shocking non-consenting human beings (or dogs or penguins or whatever) is wrong, but you support ABA in general, then what are you doing about this?

If you have an ABA therapist who is a member in good standing of the above-mentioned bodies, ask them how they feel knowing that they could use electric shock on your child and still be a member in good standing.

If you know an ABA therapist who thinks it is wrong to use emotional or physical pain under any circumstances, ask them what they are doing to change this.

Are they writing to the certifying bodies?  Boycotting conferences which include speakers from the JRC?

Has your ABA agency issued a statement condemning such methods?  Have they informed you about their position on the use of aversives, what kinds they use, and when and how they apply them?  If not, why?

Jean Donaldson suggested that all dog trainers issue an informed consent document to their clients regarding the methods they use, and why, and what other methods are available.

Shouldn’t ABA agencies do the same?

If you think ABA can be done humanely “under the right circumstances” but acknowledge that many people do it “wrong,” then what can you do to change the fact that the certifying bodies don’t consider it “wrong”?

If these methods are “wrong,” then why do the regulatory bodies defend these methods in a court of law so the judge will allow them to continue?

If you think ABA can be kind (though many autistic people who have been through ‘kind’ versions still report trauma from it), then what you are doing to make it better regulated?

Because we are talking about “experts” who are managing difficult, sometimes cognitively disabled, often non-verbal children.  There should not be any wiggle room here for screwing it up.  There should be consequences.  There should be guidelines.

Jean Donaldson, during her talk, was furious that dog training is currently largely unregulated.  There are certifying bodies such as the one to which I belong, but no legally-mandated requirements for trainers to pursue or maintain these certifications.

It’s terrible that dogs can be choked, shocked, sprayed with vinegar, neglected and otherwise abused in myriad ways as long as it is in the name of “training,” especially because there is ample and abundant evidence that these methods create psychological damage and aggressive side effects.

But it’s even worse that the same is true for autistic children and adults with cognitive disabilities.

Don’t you agree?

What ABA Needs (At The Very Least)

  1. Clear ethics guidelines unequivocally rejecting the use of aversives and condemning the use of pain, fear, food deprivation, removal of love, removal of communication devices/cherished possessions, or any other physically or emotionally abusive tactic.
  2. An impartial regulatory body which is government/FDA funded to investigate reports of potential abuse and recommend criminal charges when applicable.
  3. Open and impartial education to parents advising them of signs to watch for and what should be reported.  For example, “If your ABA therapist recommends ignoring your child when your child is crying for you, please be aware that this is considered by courts of law to be emotional abuse and is not the correct application of ABA therapy.”
  4. Removal of certifications from members found to be in contravention of the ethical code and the possibility of criminal prosecution under child abuse or child endangerment Charges.
  5. Requirements that anyone who works with a disabled child must have formal education in child psychology, child development, and in the specific conditions the child is diagnosed with.
  6. Inclusion of well-known, respected and trusted autistic/disabled people on the certification/regulatory bodies to ensure that the policies are truly in the children’s best interests.

And if it doesn’t already worry you that the above items are not currently in place, then we will never see eye-to-eye on the ethical and safe treatment of children and disenfranchised, powerless adults.

Please be advised that every statement made in this article can be easily verified with a basic Google search.  If you don’t trust Google, file a FOIA. 

People who haven’t read the full article and want to leave proof by saying things like “this article misrepresents ABA therapy” or “ABA therapy is great when used correctly!”  or “I’m an ABA therapist and this article is full of false information” or “electric shock is very mild and effective, ask any dog trainer!”  can leave their comments below.

Carol Millman

Carol Millman has a degree in Psychology, a diploma in animal health technology, and a diagnosis of autism. She is a self-employed dog trainer who specializes in training assistance dogs.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for including the guidelines at the bottom.  They could definitely be helpful to people.

  2. The fact that this happens is so incredibly disturbing!  I thought we did away with electroshock in the ’50s!

  3. Having browsed some of the “Special Education” textbooks in the local college bookstore a couple of years ago, I can see why you left “trained in Special Education” off from Item 4.  But if they’re trained “in the particular disorder,” regarding Autism, isn’t ABA the Professionals’-Choice-Treatment that you don’t want?


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