ABAI Finally Opposes the Use of Electric Shocks at the JRC

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After a vote by the membership of Applied Behavioral Analysis International (ABAI), the governing body of ABA practitioners, ABAI has reversed their position on the use of electric skin shocks for behavior modification. As of today, “[ABAI] strongly oppose[s] the use of contingent electric skin shock (CESS) under any condition.” This is the result of years and decades of advocacy from the autistic community and our allies, bringing attention to ABAI’s continued support of the Judge Rotenberg Center and its use of electric shock torture. 

For years, ABAI has allowed the Judge Rotenberg Center to sponsor their conference and to present on the use of electric shocks. Despite claiming that ABAI does not endorse the practices exhibited at their own conferences, ABAI continued to demonstrate clear support and endorsement for the Judge Rotenberg Center. Last May, ASAN and our grassroots, online and off, protested ABAI and their continued endorsement of torture. An ABAI taskforce looking into the use of electric shocks at the JRC presented their findings and final recommendations in September. The taskforce interviewed four people institutionalized at the JRC who are or were subjected to electric shocks. Despite three out of four people saying that they did not want to be shocked and all four saying that the shocks were painful, the final recommendation of the taskforce was not to oppose electric shocks. This recommendation continued ABAI’s decades-long disregard for the opinions, views and wants of JRC survivors, autistic people, and people with disabilities. While we are glad that the report’s recommendation was not adopted by ABAI, it’s clear that the new position statement is thanks to ABAI’s members, not its leadership. This change in position is too little, too late.

It has taken ABAI decades to oppose the use of torture in their field, decades where they continued to support and air the views of the JRC. In 2012, the United Nations Special Rappoteur on Torture condemned the use of electric shocks, determining that “the rights of the students of the JRC subjected to…electric shock and physical means of restraints have been violated under the UN Convention against Torture and other international standards.” In 2016, the FDA “determined that these devices present an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” The disability community has said for decades that this device is harmful and that its use is never justified. It cannot be overstated how delayed this is, how much pain and suffering was experienced at the JRC over the decades that ABAI tacitly endorsed electric shock torture. 

Now that ABAI has finally condemned the use of electric shocks, ASAN asks: What’s next? Will ABAI join us in fighting for a ban on the JRC’s electric shock devices? Will they stop letting the JRC use their conferences to promote torture? Will they confront the use of other aversives, from withholding food to “planned ignoring,” that are common within ABA? Will they change their position that restraint and seclusion may be used as punishments when “necessary or needed”? Will they grapple with ABA’s blatantly abusive origins? Will ABAI meaningfully listen to autistic people and our concerns, and take action?

ABAI’s new position does not change ASAN’s opposition to ABA, or to ABAI, but if ABAI is willing to act, they could assist us in the effort to finally ban electric shock torture. It is important that we apply as much pressure to Congress to ban the device as possible. We hope that now that ABAI has joined the disability community and other major professional organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry, International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and National Association for the Dually Diagnosed in opposing the use of electric shocks, it will take concrete action, as these other groups have. ABAI claims in their statement that “ensuring the protection of the most vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized populations” is part of their duty. We call on them to take steps to live up to those values by fighting right now to ban electric shock torture.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network seeks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. ASAN believes that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities. We work to empower autistic people across the world to take control of our own lives and the future of our common community, and seek to organize the autistic community to ensure our voices are heard in the national conversation about us. Nothing About Us, Without Us!