Viewpoint: In Wake of Founder’s Arrest, ‘Shock School’ for Autistic Children Should Be Shuttered

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On an August night four years ago, following phoned-in instructions from someone they believed was a supervisor, staff members of a group home for emotionally disturbed boys in Stoughton, Mass., rousted two teenage residents from their beds at 2 a.m., restrained them and administered dozens of painful electrical shocks.

Only after three hours of such abuse did a staff member think to verify the order to deliver shocks by calling the central office of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass., which ran the residence. That phone call revealed that the staff members had been tricked. One of the boys had to be hospitalized with second-degree burns.

It was not unusual to use skin shocks — which are reported to feel as painful as bee stings — to discipline the autistic, intellectually disabled and emotionally troubled youth housed by the Rotenberg Center. For the center’s staff, it was also not unusual to be given instructions to do so over the phone in the middle of the night. Such practices are a major part of “treatment” offered by the controversial center, which has some 200 students from around the U.S.

But now, after 40 years in business, the program’s founder, Matthew Israel, 77, has finally been forced to step down. He faces criminal charges for allegedly having destroyed videotape evidence of the events of Aug. 26, 2007, when the two boys were inappropriately shocked. Israel has denied the charges. His departure from the center, however — along with an investigation by the Justice Department for human rights violations — may mark the beginning of the end for another youth program that has long used unjustifiably harsh tactics on vulnerable people.

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Prosecutors in the case struck a pretrial deal with Israel. To avoid jail time, he left the program and will remain on probation for five years. The court also launched a four-month investigation of the center’s practices, to be led by former judge Isaac Borenstein.

He should shut Rotenberg down. Despite the fact that many parents still swear by the school’s methods, there has been no controlled research to suggest that its punishing techniques — some kids are forced to wear electrodes and battery packs 24 hours a day so they can be shocked at any time — are more effective for changing behavior than more compassionate approaches.

If the school had been following even the most rudimentary behavioral protocols, nothing remotely like the 2007 incident should ever have occurred. No staff members or residents had witnessed the misbehavior that the mystery caller claimed as basis for ordering the shocks; neither did the boys’ treatment plans include anything like the level of punishment they received.

Nonetheless, despite the boys’ screaming and protests, which led to a near riot by other residents, not one of the six staff members at the site intervened or immediately called supervisors to ask if the order for the shocks was legitimate. Only one of the boys in the house suggested that the call may have been a hoax.

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In essence, the staff had carried out a real-world replication of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments. In that research, in which people were ordered by an authority figure to deliver what they thought were painful shocks to another person as punishment, nearly two-thirds of people complied. Even after being led to believe they had caused their victims to have heart attacks, they ramped up the voltage of shocks.

In Milgram’s studies the “victims” were actors, but at Rotenberg the victims were real, injured children. Israel has claimed for years that what he does is humane, that it is superior to using psychiatric medication and that it effectively reduces self-injurious or otherwise destructive behavior.

But the fact that staff could so easily be led into sadistic practices by a simple order from an unknown person illustrates a fundamental problem with this approach. Using harsh tactics with emotionally disturbed youth has never been shown to be superior to compassionate treatment.

Indeed, the “side effects” of these tactics are often escalating toughness in staff and trauma in youth. In fact, the caller who ordered skin-shock punishment in August 2007 turned out to be a former Rotenberg student. Perhaps he wanted revenge against people he disliked or against the program itself. Whatever the reason, this aspect of the incident is telling in terms of the potential impact of the program on students.

Moreover, the center has previously been found to lie about its staff’s qualifications; the people who mete out punishment are not necessarily all trained professionals. As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2007, New York State investigators found “that shocks were being administered for such minor infractions as ‘nagging’ or ‘failing to maintain a neat appearance’” at Rotenberg.

And recent research in autistic children suggests that shock therapy is the opposite of helpful. Autistic children are much more sensitive to touch, sight, taste and sounds and are more anxious than typical kids. They tend to use repetitive and sometimes self-destructive behavior as a way of soothing themselves when they get overwhelmed by sensation. Consequently, shocking them for trying to make themselves feel better is likely to be especially traumatic. It also doesn’t help them understand or mitigate their sensory problems.

Treatment at the Rotenberg Center costs more than $200,000 a year, a tab that is often picked up by taxpayers under federal laws that require appropriate education for the disabled. That same money could buy an extraordinary level of live-in help and school-based support for disabled children, without any of the risks presented by Rotenberg.

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If there were replicated, controlled, published trials showing that skin shocks help autistic children, the debate over the Rotenberg Center would be very different. It would be about whether punitive means are justified by positive ends. But the failure to produce any such data suggests that it the school should be shuttered and that no other program be allowed to use such tactics outside of an experimental setting under strict ethical controls. Torture has been allowed to pose as therapy for far too long.