U.N. Calls for Investigation of Shocks at U.S. School for Autism


The U.N. special rapporteur on torture has opened discussions with the U.S. mission in Geneva as a first step toward investigating the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts. The JRC is thought to be the only institution in the world in which disabled and disturbed children are subjected to electric shocks as part of a behavioral approach called “aversive therapy.” The school defends the practice, saying that it receives the hardest cases, who would be hurting themselves without an effective treatment. An autism expert countered “the field moved away from this position years ago towards positive behavioral support.”

Article → 


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.

Previous articleMedia “Suicide by Cop” Portrayals Add to Misunderstanding
Next articleSenator Pursues Questionable Pharma/Academic Ties
Kermit Cole
Kermit Cole, MFT, founding editor of Mad in America, works in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a couples and family therapist. Inspired by Open Dialogue, he works as part of a team and consults with couples and families that have members identified as patients. His work in residential treatment — largely with severely traumatized and/or "psychotic" clients — led to an appreciation of the power and beauty of systemic philosophy and practice, as the alternative to the prevailing focus on individual pathology. A former film-maker, he has undergraduate and master's degrees in psychology from Harvard University, as well as an MFT degree from the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He is a doctoral candidate with the Taos Institute and the Free University of Brussels. You can reach him at [email protected].


    • I view your comment as a knee jerk reaction that exposes the basis of the philosophy of using either *aversion therapy* or *drugging children*- It is a mind set that dehumanizes children with autism and children that display the full gamut of behaviors that are labeled *disabilities. To the same degree that these children challenge their caretakers, they lose respect for having any dignity inherent in their own lives. From that viewpoint, whatever reduces the *problems* they cause caregivers, becomes the *symptom* that must be eradicated *by whatever means necessary*. Actually this is the also the basis for the *Behavioral Modification* taught as *Behavioral Science* by BF Skinner at Harvard- that behavior can be controlled, or modified, based on an arbitrary view of what is *desired behavior*, which reduces the human being to animal status and below. The founder of JRC , Dr. Matthew Israel, earned his PhD at Harvard. BF Skinner was his guru. If it weren’t for the success of humanistic caregivers and professionals alike, there would not be any *evidence* that refutes the claims that it is either *drugging* or using painful stimuli *aversion therapy* that can *control* these children.

      There is another matter, I would like YOU, JeffreyC to address, since you support the JRC. It is the cost of *torture* and who is paying for it. The yearly tab for operations at the JRC is $56 million. Dr Israels salary, BTW was about $350,000. The cost per student is a little over $200,000 per year- “Most of which is paid by taxpayer $.

      Since you support the *work* done at JRC, perhaps you should consider helping to find a way to fund it. The majority of mental health professionals, caregivers and the public, here in MA. would like to see our tax $ applied towards the support of *humanistic* care for these children- for the many groups who are raising awareness for viewing these children as valuable treasures.

      My personal and professional opinion of Dr. Matthew Israel is that he has exploited the suffering of many families and the professionals in mental health institutions throughout the country for a level of personal gain that removes all doubt of his having ever had *altrusitic* motives.

      Report comment

      • Well, sinead, then I would expect that the non-shock AND non-drug therapies be provided first and that they prove to work before any change is made in the current program, because if only shock is removed and no workable alternative is in place then these kids will for a fact find up like all other kids in their situations – on neuroleptic drugs. That is just how it works, and because that is so, aversion therapy is good because it keeps their brains healthy and free of neuroleptics.

        Report comment

          • Stephen, I’m not arguing from a position other than from reality. If you take away the shocks, they will in fact get the drugs. It doesn’t matter if they are both torture, the fact is the children are going to get one or the other. The vast majority of children in this country who are like them but not at the Rotenberg Center get neuroleptic drugs, if you take shock away from the Rotenberg Center, they will in fact start getting them too. That just is what it is. So if you fight to get aversion therapy stopped, you will in fact be supporting the inevitable in putting them on neuroleptic drugs.

            Report comment

          • Now that we have a registration system, we’re not removing posts unless there are potential legal consequences. We do ask people to respect each other, respect bloggers, promote an atmosphere of inquiry that is welcoming to all who want to participate. This does not mean people cannot disagree on the issues; in fact, the more the merrier. We love a good discussion. A little humor; all the better. We just hope people can do it without character assassination. We reserve the right to suspend accounts of people who are not respectful of other posters. We want everyone to feel they can post, and read, without anticipating feeling badly about it.

            Report comment

      • I decided to go back and read your comment and will reply to this:

        “The majority of mental health professionals, caregivers and the public, here in MA. would like to see our tax $ applied towards the support of *humanistic* care for these children- ”

        And that “humanistic” care is officially drugs. Drugs are what the mental health workers you refer to have based their entire profession around. Even if some small minority of them were in the Peter Breggin anti-drug crowd, the vast majority of them are not and when they find the Rotenberg center arguing for “humanistic” alternatives, they are in fact referring to drugs. Drugs, drugs, and nothing, is all the mental health system in the United States truly has.

        Report comment

        • I meant: and when they ATTACK the Rotenberg center arguing for “humanistic” alternatives, they are in fact referring to drugs.

          BTW, did you know that child protective services in most area’s in the U.S. can successfully children from their parents for refusing to put them on psychiatric drugs? Yep. Officially, according to the government, it’s considered child abuse via medical neglect. These are the “mental health professionals” that you are supporting in attacking the rotenberg center.

          Report comment

      • “Both are equally horrible! How can you defend such a practice and a place that carries it out against kids? Would you be able to turn the zapper on to shock kids?”

        If the only other option was standing aside while goons take them to the QR to be injected with neuroleptics, HELL YES I WOULD! And that’s exactly what happens to these kids in OTHER places besides the Rotenberg Center. The rotenberg center is fighting to keep kids off these drugs, and to me, from having suffered these drugs throughout my whole childhood, NOTHING IS WORSE THAN THESE DRUGS!

        Report comment

        • I agree with- or rather, share your *aversion* for drugs. The history of Dr Israel’s success story is grounded in your argument – he has done a great job describing the harmful effects of psych drugs for children- in over 100 pages- anyone can download his pdf- and use it to effectively argue against* drugging these kids*—-

          There are not just the two choices- or non-choices really – as neither is an option for anyone who loves and respects children— BUT, other actual interventions*– cognitive remediation ( NOT behavioral therapy) employing computer based learning has shown promise. Maybe I should not have referenced mental health professionals in such a way as to suggest THEY are the group breaking new ground with autism- actually I meant that I support the development of non-drug- and definitely non-aversive therapies- along with colleagues in the mental health field who raised issues about the great burden falling on tax payer support of this way over-priced *school* .

          Report comment

  1. Correction of the last statement in my post above: It is blatantly obvious that Dr. Israel did NOT start and perpetuate his *Treatment centers* from the altruistic motives he tries to portray to the public.

    Furthermore, like so many Harvard alumini in his field, he is not scrutinized or appropriately chastised by the *ruling class* at Harvard. Perhaps that speaks to the *wealth* that Dr. Israel, and his fellow Harvard *specialists*, Dr. Biederman, Dr. Willens and Dr. Spencer have funneled back to their alma mater!

    Report comment

  2. Supposedly, our government is forbidden to use electric shock on prisoners being interrogated. So, why is it perfectly fine to shock these kids, up to 70 some times in three hours? this is what Skinner did to his rats. Skinner was not a well man or he could never have come up with half of the stuff he did. What is happening at this place is barbaric. I’m glad that the U.N. is getting into the mess so that it can be exposed more broadly for the torture that it is. Israel probably needs to be prosecuted. He doesn’t deserve the title of doctor.

    Report comment

    • Stephen,

      You have stated exactly what the next logical course of action must be. I’ll briefly share the course of Matthew Israel’s illness.

      Dr. Israel began developing his *behavior control* theories on a 3 years old, a child of a member of one of his attempts at creating a commune- his first idea for showing purpose for Skinner’s work. (late 60’s-early 70’s) He gained the approval of the 3 year old’s mother to implement reward/punishment to control the child’s temper tantrums and disruptive outbursts. His first *aversive* technique was to flick the child’s cheeks- or pluck them with his fingers, with increasing force until the *negative* behavior (which amounts to *age-appropriate*) was eradicated. Yes, he supplied the child with rewards when she was *good*- Ultimately he failed to win over his would-be disciples in these communes and decided to open a school to *change* the negative behaviors of autistic children. This population was unlikely to articulate their experience of his early methods- and many parents were desperate for help. Whipping with a spatula, withholding food were top favorites in his first *schools for autistic children. His later developed, G.E.D. *shock appliance* was banned for use in California- it exceeded the *accepted level* 3-5 milli-amps. and time- less than one second- the state’s standards at the time. His device did and still does apply 45 milliamps for 2 seconds! The pain has been described by the journalists who tested it *on camera*- and that it makes it impairs the use of the limb affected for a brief time. This is his *claim to fame* device that he brought back east, to Canton, MA when he opened yet anothet BRI (Behavioral Research Institute). The name change is a tribute to Judge Rotenberg, who upheld Dr. Israel’s *torture* as *treatment*- keeping the center open when Dr. Israel faced one of many allegations that his aversive therapy with the G.E.D was causing harmful injury to his *patients*.

      Hopefully the UN intervention will succeed where so many previous attempts to stop this abuse of children have failed, by calling it what it is by definition, torture. If charges do not follow this expert evaluation of Dr. Israel’s *treatment*, I will be SHOCKED- .

      Report comment