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Electric Shocks Should Never Be Used on People With Developmental Disabilities

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On Tuesday, July 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned a 2020 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on the use of electric shock devices on developmentally disabled children and adults. The court, in its 2 to 1 decision, ruled that the ban regulated the “practice of medicine,” rendering it beyond the FDA’s authority. The question of how electric shocks constitute medicine is not immediately apparent.

In the crosshairs of the case is the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Massachusetts, which is the only school in the United States that manufactures and uses the Graduated Electronic Decelerator (GED), which delivers electric shocks for “aggressive” and “self-injurious” behavior. The device is worn and can administer shocks at all times, even when autistic people are showering or sleeping, and has drawn the consternation of disability rights activists.

Advocates, many of whom are autistic themselves, have taken to Twitter, creating a viral #StopTheShock hashtag. The nonprofit Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), tweeted the following: “ASAN is outraged by today’s ruling striking down the FDA’s ban on the electric skin shock device used at the Judge Rotenberg Center, but this is not the end. We will not rest until no one is subjected to torture in the name of ‘treatment.’”

It is my belief that electric shocks should never be employed on developmentally disabled people — or any sentient being, for that matter. By definition, shocks are disruptive to human functioning. They can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, post-traumatic stress disorder, irregular heartbeat and headaches. There are also a host of other physical, psychological and neurological symptoms that can occur. The use of such aversives, which sometimes deliver tens of shocks, are far more harmful than the self-injurious behavior that they purport to “correct,” and are by definition abusive.

Furthermore, being shocked doesn’t help teach useful skills. Often, autistic people engage in “problem” behavior as a way of coping. Instead of communicating with them to understand the etiology of their comportment, devices such as the GED only target the symptoms of the issue, not the cause. In short, shock treatments constitute a flawed behavioristic approach that only looks at and attempts to change people’s actions, ignoring the reasons behind them.

The D.C. Circuit Court decision also contravenes the United Nations, which has ruled that using electric shocks on developmentally disabled people constitutes “torture.” It goes without saying that causing such harm to autistic individuals in the name of “helping” them is misguided and wrong.

Ultimately, the employment of devices like the GED is a question of basic humanity. Do developmentally disabled people have the same Constitutional rights as every other person, or in an effort to enforce compliance, are they treated as lesser beings? The D.C. Circuit Court decision reduces the question of shock treatment to “medicine,” rendering autistic people as “less than.” In July, which happens to be Disability Pride Month, we must remember that all disabled people deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion, and that no individual should have to endure inhumane treatment because of their neurobiology.

Image via Google Maps.

Originally published: July 9, 2021
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