'Shocking' School Takes On Severe Autism

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When her son Marc was 14 months old, Linda Doherty knew something was wrong. While she nursed him, he would only gaze at her with a blank stare. At other times he would cry incessantly for hours. One day he cried for 14 hours straight.

Doctors constantly told her that Marc was fine, and that he was developing at a normal pace. However, when Marc was about 2 years old, doctors diagnosed him with autism.

Marc began to develop aggressive behavior, and his aggression grew to be so severe that by the time he was 6 he had been thrown out of four schools. At one point he was given a cocktail of 12 psychotropic medications at once.

"There were times that we went up there, and he would sit in a corner drooling," said Doherty. "They just kept on giving him more meds and more meds, 'til he was so doped up he had no personality."

Searching for Answers

The situation continued to worsen as Marc grew. When he was 7 or 8, he began biting his arms until they bled.

"I couldn't tell you what it looked like. It was open sores," said Doherty. By this time, she and her husband Richard were faced with the task of trying to find proper care for their son.

The Dohertys applied to more than 50 schools in New York state. They traveled to visit a school in Virginia, and another in Delaware, but none of the schools would accept Marc. Linda and Richard felt they had run out of options.

The couple was actively involved with the Autism Society of America, and befriended a woman whose son, Linda said, also exhibited "strange behavior." The woman recommended the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Mass.

Aversive Stimulation

One of the most controversial schools in the country, the Judge Rotenberg Center (J.R.C.) tries to eliminate the use of psychotropic drugs, and instead uses aversive stimulation -- specifically behavioral skin shock -- to treat children and adults with the most severe cases of autism and emotional and behavioral challenges.

The Dohertys said they were willing to try aversive stimulation to save their son from self-destruction.

The J.R.C. is the only school in the country that uses a device called a graduated electronic decelerator, or G.E.D. It is used to administer an electric skin shock when children engage in aggressive or self-injurious behavior. Students carry a backpack holding the device, which is connected to electrodes that are strapped to their arms, legs and torso.

The school receives parental and court consent before starting a student on the treatment. About half the students receive the therapy.

Though many people object to this type of punishment, Dr. Matthew Israel, the founder and director of the J.R.C., said "the device is simply a device that administers a two-second shock to the surface of the skin that has absolutely no side effects, [and] is extremely effective as a corrective procedure to encourage children not to show violent behavior, not to show self-abusive behavior."

Using a combination of punishment and reward has had a positive effect on J.R.C. students, said Israel. Students, if they exhibit proper behavior, earn points that can be redeemed for gifts in what he calls the "rewards room." Students can purchase video games, DVDs, neck ties, jewelry and stuffed animals.

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