I’ve been writing about the horrific punishments used to “train” autistic patients in the 1950s and 1960s. I honestly thought these were things of the past. But a friend alerted me to the existence of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. It’s apparently the ONLY place left in the US where they actively zap autistic patients to “train them”. And it’s right here near Boston.
I had no idea.
First, some history.
The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center
This center, was once near Providence, Rhode Island and was known as the Behavior Research Institute. This was the group that notoriously had a patient die in their care in 1985 while being subjected to white noise punishment. It had been in operation since 1971.
In 1994-1996 it changed its name (I wonder why) and relocated to Canton, Massachusetts. It handles the most challenging cases. It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars. Its purpose is to ensure the patients that other centers can’t manage have somewhere to go. So this is not a “first stop” for a young autistic child figuring out their coping techniques. This is often the “last resort” for desperate parents and guardians.
The center has about 270 patients and they come from all over the US. Often the patients are routinely self-harming. The doctors do not want to have to simply tie them to a bed and medicate them. I get that. I understand there’s a challenge.
But is this really the solution?
Backpacks Designed to Painfully Zap Patients
Yes, this is really the treatment. The patients wear a backpack with electrical systems in it. If the patient misbehaves, they get a TWO SECOND LONG painful zap. I know two seconds sounds like a short time. But imagine you are near a hot stove. Now imagine someone presses your hand down onto that stove FOR TWO SECONDS and won’t release you. It boggles the mind.
The center used to do other things, too. Put hot sauce on a patient’s tongue. They were chemically burning their tongues! Now they are focused in on the electric backpacks. Is that progress? Or is it just stunningly scary that it’s even still happening?
Some staff went further, beating patients with belts. While this was not a “condoned punishment” it shows the mindset of some working here. This is from 2016 –
And here in 2019 they are actively zapping patients when the patients misbehave.
NPR Article from January 2019 –
WBUR version –
Unfortunately, we have hit a hurdle in getting this situation resolved. In the January 2019 NPR article, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb vowed to get the backpacks banned by the end of 2019. Then in March 2019 he resigned. I can’t find ANY news anywhere that the FDA or ANYONE is moving forward to handle this situation. So the Judge Rotenberg Center continues to shock its patients, sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes leaving lasting injuries.
The Massachusetts state government has been trying for thirty years to shut them down. They’re still unable to do so.
A key legislator in Massachusetts was actively protecting this organization because his nephew was housed in the facility. Thankfully, that legislator got voted out in January 2019. So he is no longer in place to act as a shield for them.
The Earth has agreed to “no torture” guidelines. We aren’t supposed to torture prisoners of war. Even if there might be a good outcome, torture is supposed to be forbidden. And yet here we are torturing autistic patients multiple times a day for minor infractions of rules. Clearly it’s not working, since it keeps going on. It’s not changing the behavior. But it’s the “easy solution” for the doctors.
There has to be some way to press this issue forward. Please let me know if you have ideas. I have written my senator, my representative, the Attorney General’s office, and the WBUR reporter to get ideas.
A description of the electro-shock backpack the patients are forced to wear –
Description of the autistic patient death –