Pathways Developmental Learning Center

March 6, 2009

Autism is no excuse for child abuse

I have been debating whether or not to write this post. As a professional in the field of autism intervention I realize that the overwhelming majority of people who choose to become therapists, educators, or helpers to those with developmental disabilities such as autism have good intentions. However, there are certain practices that have been used with people with autism for a long time that make me cringe. Honestly, I believe people think they are doing the right thing – but do they ever stop to ask themselves “Hey, would I be doing this if this person did not have autism?”

There is a certain mentality that pervades some circles in the autism community. Almost like the person with autism is not a person – like they are a sum of behaviors that need to be fixed, shaped, modified or extinguished. If we were not talking about autism, but were talking about *real* human beings instead, we might say the person attempting to fix or shape us was a control freak, even abusive. Think about the following scenarios. Would we say this was okay to do to a person without autism? Would we do these things to our children, siblings, friends, co-workers? Are these things okay to do to a person just because he or she has autism?

  • Demanding eye contact by grabbing the person’s face and forcing them to look at you
  • Talking in front of the person like he or she is not there, often describing incidents that to most people might be embarrassing or present them in a negative light (e.g. “He had a tantrum today”)
  • Two adults physically manhandling a small child to cut toe-nails, without asking parents’ permission
  • Treating a person with autism (of any age) like a pet, talking about how ‘cute’ they are for doing x, y, or z
  • Using electric shock to control unwanted behaviors that are not dangerous or life-threatening. Forcing a child to wear an electrical shock device in a backpack 24/7 to instill fear in him so that he will comply with whomever places a demand. Electric shocks may be given for something as slight as taking hands out of the lap or getting out of one’s seat.

Unfortunately all of these scenarios still exist in this day and age, when we know autism is NOT a behavioral disorder, people with autism have neurological challenges and are not ‘acting out’ or intentionally misbehaving. People with autism have perceptual differences that affect how they process information. Research continues to elucidate sensory, motor, and cognitive differences in the autism population. Yet somehow the idea persists that a purely behavioral approach is going to solve the *problem* of the autistic child.  I am particularly disturbed by a recent article I read about the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts. Though electric shock is an extreme example, I think it is just one end of the continuum of the general mentality that is still pervasive amongst professionals who work with people with autism. Furthermore, I often see where that mentality is passed onto parents who inadvertently begin to see their child in the same way as their circle of therapists and professionals.

I have been reading a little about the Judge Rotenberg Center after seeing some posts on a blog written by a woman with autism. I am apalled. I recognize that historically people with autism (as well as other developmental disabilities, mental illness, and physical disabilities) have been marginalized in society. I just don’t understand how it can continue in our society in this day and age, when we know so much more about the causes of behaviors. I don’t understand how electric shock can still be used, and not even with the most severe cases of behavior problems, but for ‘milder’ issues like ADD/ADHD? How can shock be used for behaviors like getting out of one’s seat or taking hands out of your lap? What is wrong with people? Furthermore, how can research be published in reputable journals stating that this type of therapy has no negative side effects? Surely individuals who are exposed to this type of shock treatment experience forms of Post Traumatic Stress.  This type of treatment causes patients to live in a constant state of fear and anxiety that at any moment they might be electrocuted without warning. Does this not qualify as torture?  I repeat, what is wrong with people?

I just can’t comprehend using such extreme measures for any human being, or animal, for that matter. There are whole movements aimed at prevention of torture of animals using electrocution in experiments – Animal Rights, ya know? What about the rights of people with autism? Who’s fighting for them?

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