The Judge Rotenberg Center, an educational and residential facility in Canton, Massachusetts, says it has a “near zero rejection policy,” accepting autistic people and those with developmental disabilities and mental health conditions whose families say they have nowhere else to go — “emotionally disturbed students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems.” The facility claims to provide residents with opportunities to pursue “healthy growth and development,” but one of the things in its toolbox is so obscene that the United Nations has classified it as torture: The graduated electronic decelerator (GED), otherwise known as a shock device for “aversive therapy.”
“Students” at the JRC may be shocked for flapping their hands, standing without permission, tics, not following orders, and even screaming in pain because they are being shocked. According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), in addition to causing pain, use of the GED can lead to burns — and long-term psychological effects. People who have been “treated” at the JRC have developed depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The JRC is the only facility in the United States that uses GEDs, though it’s not the only one that uses aversives. Tactics used include pinching, forcing people to sniff ammonia, strapping people into white noise helmets, and other cruel practices that use the threat of fear and pain to get people to stop engaging in a behavior deemed antisocial or “harmful.” These practices are rooted in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a widely criticized and abusive form of “therapy” that positions autism — and autistic behaviors — as something broken within a person that needs to be fixed.
The JRC’s use of shock devices is well-known in the autistic and developmental disability community. It’s been a subject of protest and litigation for years, including a 1987 consent decree. But it comes as a surprise to many who are startled to learn that this happens routinely, and with the blessing of the government. Every child outfitted with a GED has been the subject of a court order authorizing its use, with the JRC claiming it’s necessary after all other options have been exhausted. Zoe Gross of ASAN says: “Although they say it’s a treatment of last resort, it’s not true, that’s their entire thing.” Shock is the thing that sets the JRC apart.
In 2016, it seemed like autistic activists were close to a major victory in their fight against the practice. The Food and Drug Administration drafted regulations barring the GED — but two years later, it has yet to finalize them. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb could resolve the issue tomorrow with a signature, but he won’t. ASAN, ADAPT, The Arc, and other disability rights groups engaged in direct action and political lobbying — including delivering 290,000 signatures to the FDA and camping out at the FDA Commissioner’s house — earlier this year, rallying to “stop the shock.”
Now, advocates have been dealt another blow in the form of a court ruling in Massachusetts in which a judge determined that: “(The state) failed to demonstrate that there is now a professional consensus that the Level III aversive treatment used at JRC does not conform to the accepted standard of care for treating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Parents gloated over the ruling, accusing the state of “subterfuge” to “discredit the school and its good work.”
This court outcome is further evidence that a federal ban is necessary, says ADAPT activist Mike Oxford, who has been heavily involved in working to stop abuse at the JRC. Gross notes that the JRC has deep connections in Massachusetts, including within the legal system, making it incredibly challenging to address the school’s practices via the courts of its home state. At ADAPT, Oxford says, “our national focus is on ending institution, broadly, keeping people from having to go in, helping people leave.” Barring the use of shocks at the JRC is one step forward, and with the school’s dependence on the practice, Gross says, it’s possible that a ban could pave a way to the ultimate closure of the facility.
Oxford ties the problems with the JRC to deeper disability rights issues of autonomy, independence, and the right to live in the community with appropriate supports. “Where are things breaking down? Is it that parents aren’t being supported? Yes. Is it because individuals aren’t getting sufficient types and amounts of services and supports that are needed to have a community be a workable option?”
Parents passionately advocating to allow the JRC to shock their children often claim they had nowhere else to turn, or were desperate. But Gross comments that the standard of care has evolved well beyond the use of crude aversives. Autistics like those currently trapped in the JRC demonstrably live rich, full lives in their communities, negating the notion that this is the only choice. “We have to make a stand against all these different forms of aversive treatment, people being put in coercive settings,” urges Gross.
The battle over the use of shocks to punish people at the JRC highlights the stakes of national disability organizing. Whether via the FDA or act of Congress, organizations like ASAN and ADAPT want to #StopTheShock, but they’re also pushing back on aversives, institutionalization, and the lack of services and supports available to the autistic community. We need cross-movement solidarity to accomplish these goals. Disabled people need to show up for the autistics among them to fight for their rights and against harm, because none of us are free until all of us are free.