Technical note about “punishment”: If the frequency of a behavior descreases over time when a specific event (the shock, in this case) immediately and consistently follows it, then the event is considered a punisher and the procedure is called punishment. Punishment occurs in the natural environment: The behavior of placing one’s hand on a hot stove is punished by the consequence of doing so. Spanking, although considered punishment in lay terms, rarely is a punishment in psychological terms, because it is rarely administered contingently (consistently and immediately after a specific behavior). Faradic aversive conditioning is used in other therapies, such as some stop-smoking clinics and alcohol aversion treatments. (It is called “Faradic” after Michael Faraday, a researcher who discovered electromagnetic induction in the 1830s.)
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton (MA, US) has come into the news recently, apparently regarding its use of Faradic aversive conditioning in the treatment of autism. Faradic aversive conditioning is the administration of an electric shock contingent on the performance of a specific behavior and the center uses it to eliminate dangerous behaviors such as self-injury (biting, hitting, banging one’s head, etc.). Faradic aversive conditioning is a procedure that reduces the frequency of the behavior. Thus, it is a punishment in the psychological sense, not the everyday sense of the word.
The Judge Rotenberg Center, led by Matthew Israel, uses what it calls a “graduated electronic decelerator” that delivers a shock of about 3-11 milliamps for about 2 seconds, similar to what one would get from a few flashlight batteries. The center uses these aversives with approximately 50% of its residents when less-punitive measures have failed to reduce their problem behavior, and it uses them in accord with precisely defined policies that have been approved by parents and courts.
Still, the very term “shock” is enough to frighten some people and when it is combined with “therapy” and “autism,” the concept evokes strong reactions. Glance over the headlines I’ve provided in the links at the end of this entry to get a sense of how the press uses sensational language in its coverage of the story. However, here’s the way Ken Maguire, Associated Press writer who published a carefully researched and worded background piece, characterized reactions to the terms:
Hear about shock therapy and what pops to mind are scenes out of the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” But the skin shocks are not electroconvulsive therapy, which began in the 1930s as a way to treat schizophrenia.
Mr. Israel’s program and the Judge Rotenberg Center have been the focus of attacks in the past—Mr. Maguire’s story was published under the headline, “Canton school’s shock therapy comes under fire — yet again.” In fact, the center is funded in part by money Mr. Israel obtained from lawsuits against people and agencies that used false information in efforts to close the school in the 1970s and 80s.
Questions about using aversive procedures have been debated extensively in the special education and psychology literature. I’ve appended a reference to a very thorough discussion of both sides of the issue for those who are willing to examine it calmly; even if one has a predisposition to argue for or against the use of Faradic aversive conditioning and other aversive, there are worthwhile chapters in the book edited by A. Repp and N. Singh.
Also, for the rational, the Boston (MA, US) Globe published a sensible editorial 23 June about the controversy. It takes a reasoned approach to the aversives issue but raises legitimate questions about another matter (staff licenses). The editorial predates more recent allegations that some residents at the Judge Rotenburg Center have burns; these allegations are not yet substantiated and it will be important to get the facts about them before condeming or defending the center on that count.
Repp, A. C., & Singh, N. N. (Eds.). (1990). Perspectives on the use of nonaversive and aversive interventions for persons with developmental disabilities. Sycamore, IL: Sycamore.
Link to Mr. Maguire’s article, as printed in the Boston Globe. Links to other news coverage on this story: