'Shocking' School Takes On Severe Autism

A painful treatment for severe autism causes controversy.

ByABC News
February 19, 2007, 4:52 PM

Feb. 20, 2007 — -- 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."

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.

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.