By Contributing Writer Abigail Field
The torture of disabled children and young adults, often thought of as a thing of the past, is in fact still alive and well in Canton, Massachusetts. Autistic young adults and children as young as nine years old are made to live in constant terror at a facility called the Judge Rotenberg Center. This center, founded in 1971, uses electric shock to condition young autistic people, 90% of whom are non-white, into “normal” behavior. This is both a human and civil rights issue.
This is not electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which can be undergone by consenting adults under anesthesia, wherein a brief electrical stimulation is applied to the brain. The electric shock used at the JRC is different. Students are made to wear electrodes on their hands, feet, legs, arms, and stomach, and they are remotely shocked by staffers at the school. Infractions which result in electric shock include failing to maintain a neat appearance, stopping work for more than 10 seconds, interrupting, whispering, not answering staff quickly enough, slouching, making more than five vocalizations an hour, etc.
The shock is meant to be unbearably painful, and the device that delivers it was developed by the center itself and is used nowhere else in the world. It was intentionally designed to be more painful and powerful than a police taser.
James Eason, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington and Lee University said, “The lowest level shock used at JRC is roughly twice what pain researchers have said is tolerable for most humans.” Autistic children and young adults who have been victims of this inhumane practice have not only suffered burns, but they also suffer from PTSD and other permanent psychological damage.
Take for example Andre McCollins, who, when he was 19, now lives with severe psychological trauma because of his experiences at the JRC. He was shocked after not taking off his jacket. Upon screaming after being shocked (that’s another thing autistic people cannot do at the JRC), he was then strapped face down on a four-point restraint board. Over the next seven hours, he was shocked 30 more times. All of these subsequent shocks were for “tensing his muscles in anticipation of the next shock” or screaming while being shocked again.
So why is this legal? Because it’s not explicitly illegal. The state of Massachusetts has tried many times without success to close the center or to pass regulations that would protect people there, but it has been unsuccessful. As long as any psychologist recommends electric shocking an autistic child and a judge agrees, it is legal.
Electrically shocking developmentally disabled people is based upon the concept of aversion therapy. More commonly known as ABA or the Lovaas method, it is a psychological method predicated upon the idea that autistic people are wrong. As a young autistic woman, I tend to wholly disagree with the idea. Naught but 200 years ago, there was a widespread notion that the way women thought and behaved too was “wrong” or “broken” (and if we’re honest, some people still believe this).
I, and most other autistic people, are happy with how our brains work. What we aren’t happy with, and certainly I can speak only for myself, is the disabling nature of the society around us. Of course, having sensory sensitivities and a difficult time understanding emotions and vocal tonality and facial expressions are things intrinsic to myself. But the way other people treat me and my differences aren’t. As a child, my parents focused on what I was skilled at, rather than forcing me to go to therapy to become “normal”. As a result, I grew up confident in my ability to do that which I was good at, rather than hold undue anxiety over appearing “normal”.
That’s what is so disgusting about the JRC. The center harms autistic children and young adults; it punishes them for simply being autistic. This center has been able to operate for so long because disability rights are often overlooked. For example, most people only know Autism Speaks when they think about disability advocacy. However, Autism Speaks does not speak for disabled people. They have no autistic people on their board, and yet somehow, the organization deigns to speak for us? Absolutely not.
Over the past few months, there has been a concerted effort on the part of organizers to eradicate the use of electric shocks or other painful punishment at the Judge Rotenberg Center. If we get enough signatures on petitions for two bills, we can get them on the ballot in 2020. If you are interested in stopping this practice, please visit https://autistichoya.net/judge-rotenberg-center/ma-2019-citizens-petitions for instructions and petitions.