Judge Rotenberg Center – Close it Down!

Shock Tactics is yet another detailed account of the abuse carried out on people at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Over half the inmates at this institution are wired to a device called the GED that delivers painful electric shocks at the push of a button. At one time the use of electric shocks on severely disturbed children was given dubious justification by the life threatening severity of their self injurious behaviour. Better GED than dead as it were. The reporter, Jennifer Gonnerman, gives credence to this when she writes:

Before we set off on our tour of the institution, there’s something Israel wants me to see: Before & After, a home-made movie featuring six of his most severe cases. He has been using some of the same grainy footage for more than two decades, showing it to parents of prospective students as well as reporters. It shows how in 1977, an 11-year-old girl, Caroline, arrives at the school strapped on a stretcher, her head encased in a helmet. Next, free from restraints, she tries to smash her helmeted head against the floor. In 1981 it shows Janine, also 11, who shrieks and slams her head against the ground, a table, the door. Bald spots testify to the severity of her troubles; she’s yanked out so much hair it’s half gone. Compared with these scenes, the “after” footage looks almost unbelievable: Janine splashes in a pool; Caroline grins as she sits in a chair at a beauty salon.

“These are children for whom positive-only procedures did not work, drugs did not work,” says Israel. “And if it wasn’t for this treatment, some of these people would not be alive.” The video is very persuasive: the girls’ self-abuse is so violent and so frightening it almost makes me want to grab a GED remote and push the button myself. Of course, this is precisely the point.

Then she meets two of these “success stories. “

Considering how compelling the after footage is, I am surprised to learn that five of the six children featured in it are still here. “This is Caroline,” one of my escorts says later as we walk down a corridor. Without an introduction, I would not have known. Caroline, 39, slumps forward in a wheelchair, her fists balled up, head covered by a red helmet. “Blow me a kiss, Caroline,” Israel says. She doesn’t respond.

A few minutes later, I meet 36-year-old Janine, who appears in much better shape. She’s not wearing a helmet and has a full head of black hair. She’s also got a backpack on her shoulders and canvas straps hanging from her legs, the telltale sign that electrodes are attached to both calves. For 16 years – nearly half her life – Janine has been hooked up to Israel’s shock device. A few years ago, when the shocks began to lose their effect, the staff switched the devices inside her backpack to the much more painful GED-4.

The Judge Rotenberg Center no longer restricts itself to severely handicapped children who self harm. More “high functioning” individuals with a range of difficulties including ADHD and Bipolar Disorder get the same electric shock “treatment” for the most trivial “offences” like getting out their seat without permission.

Matthew Israel, the director and founder of the JRC claims to be a behaviourist in the tradition of B. F. Skinner, under whom he studied in the 1950s. He took up the idea of using electric shock from fellow behaviourist Ivor Lovaas. Lovaas no longer uses electric shocks because:

“These people are so used to pain that they can adapt to almost any kind of aversive you give them.”

Israel met the same difficulty. His answer was to turn up the power and use even more painful devices. What I want to know is how long are we going to put up with college educated professors telling us it OK to inflict pain on the most helpless and vulnerable people in society? Even Dr Bernard of the Maudsley Hospital in London is quoted in the article as saying,

It’s terrible to use something like that without clear evidence to show it works.

There have been attempts to close the JRC. But Israel has always relied on the tesimonials of satisfied parents, motivated by the fear that if JRC closes there is nowhere else for their children. It seems that the only criteria for admission is that you have been written off and rejected by everyone else. Once inside your fate is forgotten.

What I find most inexplicable is the support for JRC by ex inmates. Stockholm Syndrome maybe? This is Katie Spartichino:

Katie, 19, tells me she overdosed on pills at nine, spent her early adolescence in and out of psychiatric wards, was hooked up to the GED at 16, and stayed on the device for two years. “This is a great place,” she says. “It took me off all my medicine. I was close to 200lb and I’m 160 now.” But when she first had to wear the electrodes, she says: “I cried. I kind of felt like I was walking on eggshells; I had to watch everything I said. Sometimes a curse word would just come out of my mouth. So being on the GEDs and knowing that swearing was a targeted behaviour where I’d receive a [GED] application, it really got me to think twice before I said something rude.”  

The most chilling part of the whole story is one of apparent tenderness.

As Katie speaks, LaChance runs her fingers through Katie’s hair again and again. The gesture is so deliberate it draws my attention. I wonder if it’s just an expression of affection – or something more, like a reward.

To me, LaChance’s action screams of an abusive relationship, Katie allowing herself to be treated like a child by someone who probably inflicted pain on her in the past. And when Katie admits that she sometimes still swears

 The hair-stroking stops. LaChance turns to Katie. “I hope you’re not going to tell me you’re aggressive.”

The last time I heard that voice it was Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Oh, no, that’s gone,” Katie says. “No, no, no. The worst thing I do sometimes is me and my mom get into little arguments.”

Poor Katie, still in fear of that voice, still in thrall.  And she is one of the lucky ones. She got out.

JUDGE ROTENBERG CENTER – CLOSE IT DOWN!

Judge Rotenberg Center again

Derrick Jeffries – Person with Asperger’s Syndrome and Nancy Weiss – Co-Director, The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities, Center for Disabilities Studies, University of Delaware have issued

A Call for Ethical and Unprejudiced Leadership and Practice in the Field 

which I was pleased to sign. The letter begins like this:

“This letter is to the American Psychological Association (hereafter referred to as APA), and to all professionals in the field of psychology. This letter calls upon APA and professionals who adhere to the APA Code of Ethics to act in a manner that is ethical and consistent with that Code of Ethics. Two recent APA documents are relevant to this call to action. They are, the 2006 “Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or punishment” (hereafter referred to as 2006 Resolution), and the 2007 “Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as “Enemy Combatants”” (hereafter referred to as 2007 Resolution). With fervor, we are advocating for people with autism, developmental differences, and mental health challenges; urgently entreating that they may be given the same respect with regard to human rights as alleged “Enemy Combatants,” or any other human beings. As professionals who adhere to the APA Code of Ethics, nothing less than an unprejudiced stance in this matter should be considered acceptable.

“Currently, children and young adults with autism, developmental differences, and mental health challenges are being treated in a manner that clearly meets the definition of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as defined by the two previously mentioned APA documents. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (hereafter referred to as JRC) in Massachusetts has a long history of using electric shock, food deprivation and prolonged mechanical restraint, as well as other painful and dehumanizing aversive techniques.”

Please go to http://disabledsoapbox.blogspot.com/ to read the letter in full and add your support. Meanwhile, anyone interested in debating with Matthew Israel should visit the Justice, the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University. Nathan Robinson from Brandeis Students United Against The Judge Rotenberg Center has written an opinion piece about the JRC that has provoked responses from Israel and equally vigorous replies from Nathan and others.

Piers Bolduc on You and Yours

 This letter was forwarded to the Asperger UK group today with permission of Cris Bolduc, mother of Piers Bolduc.  I urge anyone with access to BBC Radio 4 to listen to You and Yours tomorrow. Piers was misdiagnosed as mentally ill  and placed on powerful antipsychotic drugs. When he wounded a man while on medication he was sectioned and sent to Broadmoor, the top security prison for the criminally insane, which contains serial killers, mass murderers and sex offenders.  While there he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. The Daily Telegraph campaigned for his release and in 2004 he was transferred to the Hayes Unit, the only secure unit specifically run for people with Aspergers Syndrome.

BBC RADIO 4 ‘YOU & YOURS’ this Thursday, 13th September 2007 at 12.04 mid-day.If all goes according to plan the programme we have recorded with the
BBC, on various occassions and locations since May, will be aired
THIS Thursday 13th September on RADIO 4 ‘YOU & YOURS’ at 12.04. Its
all about lack of care/units for adults with Asperger Syndrome and hi-
lites our son Piers’ tragic case.
Apologies in advance if its re-scheduled for sometime the following
week but that is the way it goes in the media! As I write it is still
on course for this Thursday. Although a great deal of recordings were
made, after editing it will be cut down to size so don’t blink or go
and make a coffee or you might miss it! I just feel that ‘every
little helps’ (to borrow a phrase!) not only for us and Piers but
other families struggling within the minefields of flawed placements
and the postal code lottery of accessing support and services.
You should be able to ‘listen again’ by putting: You & Yours listen
again, into your computer’s Google search a few days after it is
aired.
Please excuse the Round Robin but it is the quickest way to alert
everyone!
AllBest
Cris

Here is the article that celebrated his release from Broadmoor 3 years ago.

Asperger’s man is released from Broadmoor

By Daniel Foggo

Last Updated: 7:40pm BST 07/08/2004

A man suffering from Asperger’s syndrome who was wrongly sent to Broadmoor after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia has been released after a campaign by The Telegraph.

Piers Bolduc, 28, was put on powerful drugs which he did not need and held at the hospital for the criminally insane since he was 19, despite not suffering from mental illness or having any convictions. Asperger’s is a mild form of autism which is fundamentally unresponsive to drugs, because it is a condition and not an illness.

He was finally transferred last week to the Hayes Independent Hospital in Bristol, the only facility in Britain that caters specifically for people with Asperger’s. [continue to article]

Who knows how many other autistic people are being misdiagnosed and mistreated within our mental health system. And I know that for many mentally ill people the system is just as bad.

Of mice and men and autistic fruit flies

Autism is a hot topic for scientists engaged in brain research. If you can link your research to autism it may help you to access additional funding that is available in the USA. In response to a determined campaign by parents and lobby groups  Congress passed the Combating Autism Act which sanctioned a substantial increase in the funds available for research into the causes of autism. At the same time the high profile pressure group Autism Speaks has, by a series of mergers and alliances, notably with Cure Autism Now! and the National Alliance for Autism Research, emerged as a leading funder of autism research.  In June it announced research grants of $15.2 million USD. Then there are private trusts like the Simons Foundation which is providing long term funding for autism research at Yale($2.5 million USD), Cold Spring Harbour, ($13.8 million USD), Michigan($2.8 million USD), MIT($7.5 million USD) and Rockefeller ($7.7 million USD).

This is serious money. One hopes that it attracts serious research. The Chapel Hill School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina is a serious research institute. According to Science Daily  they have made an important discovery that

may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.

They made this important discovery while researching the role of neurexin in Drosophila, that is fruit flies to the rest of us. Drosophila are an important part of the biological research toolkit. Their relatively simple genome and rapid reproductive cycle have made them a favourite of biologists researching the mechanics of evolution. But autistic fruit flies? Autism is a complex social disorder. Fruit flies are not complex social beings.

Neurexin is a basic prerequisite for  neuronal connectivity. Without it the fruit flies barely survived. Movement was severely impaired. These are primitive creatures compared to us. I would anticipate that a similar lack in humans would have far more devastating results. Autism would be the least of our worries. Never mind. The putative autism connection cannot have done any harm in obtaining funding from

  • the National Institute of General Medical Sciences,
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  • the National Institute of Mental Health 
  • the state of North Carolina.

Moving up the food chain we find a mouse study. Thanks to Mady Hornig mouse studies  of autism have received a bad press. But this one is different. Thanks again to Science Daily for telling us that

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have genetically engineered mice that harbor the same genetic mutation found in some people with autism and Asperger syndrome.

The gene in question codes for for a protein called neuroligin-3.

This protein functions as a cell adhesion molecule in synapses, the junctions that connect neurons in the brain and allow them to communicate with each other. Synapses are essential to all brain activities, such as perception, behavior, memory, and thinking. Südhof said that the neuroligin-3 mutation that his team recapitulated in the mice has been identified in some people with genetic conditions known as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Mutations in proteins that interact with neuroligin-3 have also been detected in some people with ASDs.

Neurexin is one of these detected proteins.  (remember the fruit flies?) Is this a double whammy that damns autistic people/mice forever? Apparently not. These genetically engineered, autistic mice did rather more than “barely survive.” They showed diminished social interaction but improved cognitive performance compared to neurotypical mice. This is automatically seen as a deficit. But surely progress is driven by those individuals who turn their back on the herd and consider the external world? Never mind. In the wacky world of autism research, conformity is valued over diversity and sociability scores higher than intelligence.

But my take home message is that geek mice rule OK! [or at least they ought to]

Bad Science Abuses Autistics

If you have not read them already I urge you to visit Kristina Chew’s and Interverbal’s blogs where they write on an extraordinary technique employed by French psychiatrists to “treat” autism.

And if anybody is fluent in French I would be interested to know what they are saying about it on Forum Autisme My own limited grasp of the language suggests that, thankfully, a lot of French people are outraged by this “treatment” as well.

“A French treatment for autistic children with psychiatric problems which involves wrapping the patient in cold, wet sheets from head to foot is undergoing a clinical trial for the first time, which critics hope will see an end to the controversial practice.

The treatment, known as “packing”, involves wrapping a child in wet, refrigerated sheets in order to produce a feeling of bodily limitation and holding, before psychiatrically trained staff talk to the child about their feelings. Critics have called the procedure cruel, unproven and potentially dangerous, but its proponents say they have seen results.”

This is not quackery from some fringe movement like DAN! This is quackery from the heart of the French psychiatric establishment where Freudian-based psychoanalysis still holds sway. Before we get too smug it is as well to remember that the Tavistock Centre in the  UK is funded by the NHS to treat autism with psychoanalysis. And according to the Lancet

Delion recently gave a course on the technique at the Tavistock Clinic in London, which is part of the UK’s National Health Service. Maria Rhode, a psychotherapist at the clinic, points out that there are currently no effective treatments for autism, and that caring for such children presents a major, long-term challenge to health services.

Thank you to Michelle Dawson for this. Writing on her discussion list, The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists she also informs me that Professor Hobson is a member of the Tavistock Centre. As I understand it Hobson believes autism  results from a failure of interaction between child and caregiver that he regards as “the cradle of thought,” the essential foundation of what it means to be human. Here we are again. Autism is seen as a deficit that makes you less than human. So abuse of these children is OK in the name of science. I am sure scientists who experiment on animals have to follow stricter codes of ethical practise than those that apply to autistics and other victims of psychiatric research.

Autism, Genetics and Research Ethics

The latest edition of Communication, the members magazine of the National Autistic Society contains two interesting articles on genetic research.

GENE GENIE by Professor Anthony Bailey

The first  article, by Professor Anthony Bailey of Oxford University’s Autism Research Unit, seeks to summarize recent developments in genetic research. Considering the complexity of the subject and the nature of his audience (mainly parent members of the NAS like myself with no specialist scientific training) he does a remarkable job in under a 1000 words. I  find that those experts who can write coherent and concise accounts of their work for a lay audience are usually the ones with the soundest grasp of their subject matter. Professor Bailey is no exception.

He starts by emphasizing how little we know.  This cannot be stressed too much. There have been a spate of recent reports in which journalists, and some scientists who ought to know better, have hyped up the latest genetic “breakthroughs” as harbingers of an imminent cure. But all we have so far are “candidate” genes. This is not to diminish the work of the scientists involved. Genetic research has been marked by a massive collaboration of scientific and funding institutions. It is detailed and difficult work that is only now beginning to accelerate with access to improved technology.

The most likely candidates are genes on the long arm of chromosome 7 and on chromosome 2. Again, caution is necessary. These are not genes for autism. They are potential genes for autism susceptibility. There is no single gene for autism. According to Professor Bailey, “the risk of developing autism seems to be conferred by the interaction between at least 3 or 4 genes (and possibly many more) and there were no clues as to what these genes might code for.”

When a gene is finally identified scientists will still want to learn more about what it does, when it is expressed and which other genes it interacts with. They will also try and identify the environmental factors at work. These factors need not be “known neurotoxins.” They may be neutral or even beneficial in the absence of particular genetic combinations.

[OK I realize that some of my readers may regard autism as a beneficial outcome. I look forward to your comments so that we can explore the nuances of meaning around accepting autism and welcoming autism.]

Our knowledge of genetic factors in autism leans heavily on work with families where more than one sibling is affected.  The evidence from twin studies is that autism is a highly heritable condition. So it makes sense to look at families where this is most obviously the case when seeking the genetic causes of autism. But many parents who read Professor Bailey’s article will have no obvious genetic traits of autism in their families. A new study may help to explain this. Dr Michael Wigler is a molecular geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboraory in New York and he has just published a pilot study suggesting that spontaneous mutations in the parents’ sperm or egg cells may be the cause of autism in a majority of cases. Prometheus discusses this in more detail on his blog, Photon in the Darkness, and provides a link to Dr Wigler’s paper.

This all goes to show how complex the science is. It is increasingly unlikely that we will find a simple genetic cause or even a simple genetic predisposition that relies on an obvious and preventable environmental trigger for autism. I am fascinated by the science of autism but it is not going to provide any immediate answers or easy fixes. Social policy will have a greater impact on the quality of life for autistic people in the foreseeable future. This is why public attitudes to autism are so important – a point addressed in the second article.

CHOOSING THE FUTURE by Dr. Phiippa Russell

Dr Russell is a Disability Rights Commissioner and Disability Policy Advisor to the National Childen’s Bureau. She wrote about the ethical implications for genetic testing and research. She began by pointing out that alongside the potential health benefits of genetic science there is also the danger that “the primary focus of new genetic technology might not be on improving the quality of life and healthcare for vulnerable individuals. Instead, it could be lead to eugenic attitudes, which devalue disabled people and encourage discrimination in employment and other areas of life.”

There are some areas where genetic screening ought to be non-controversial. But what if it leads to discrimination in obtaining employment or essential life insurance? Dr Russell has an interesting take on this. She argues that women with a known genetic susceptibility to breast cancer may acually live longer than other women who are less likely to have regular mammograms and more likely to have their cancer detected later, when treatment options are less effective.

This kind of logic may appeal to actuaries. But most people will react negatively to the idea of disability, especially if it is a genetic disability that is  predictable and, disregarding David Hume,  therefore ought to be prevented. Dr Russell thinks that “If we accept this view, then we risk

  • reducing embryos, foetuses and, in consequence, individuals to their genetic characteristics, thereby reversing the progress made concerning human and civil rights for disabled people
  • increasing responsibility (and social exclusion) for familes with disabled children, where the disability was related to genetic predisposition
  • ignoring the multiple talents of disabled people and the real contribution which they make to family and society.”

Genetic science will advance, regardless of the ethical dilemmas it creates. People with disabilities ought to benefit from these advances. But according to Dr Russell “there are challenges in avoiding unnecessarily negative pictures of quality of life and value to the local community. “

She does not mention autism by name but goes on to say, “Many readers will be both aware and proud of their disability. It is unique to them and carries benefits as well as some challenges.”

Dr Russell ends with his quote from an unidentified disabled man.

“Disabled people themselves must join the debate about the ethics of genetic testing – you cannot close Pandora’s box once it has been opened, but the challenge is in using new information proactively to improve quality of life, not to shut down someone’s work and other opportunities because of poor understanding and low expectations. Knowledge is power – but it is essential that it is controlled by the person directly affected and used for his or her benefit, rather than used by others as a means of social exclusion.”

This is one reason why next month’s meeting on the Politics of Autism is so important. Anyone who can attend should ring up and book a place now.

According to Communication “The NAS is keen to hear the views of members and others on this complex issue … email communication@nas.org.uk with the words ‘gene ethics’ in the subject line.” The full articles in Communication are only available to NAS members.  If you want to join email membership@nas.org.uk

I am greatly encouraged by the NAS  inviting this sort of debate. I do urge people to respond.

‘It is not a disease, it is a way of life’

guardian-story.jpg 

This article is in today’s Guardian. guardian-story.jpgguardian-story.jpgguardian-story.jpg

It provides a useful introduction to the positions of some of the supporters of autism acceptance, including myself and fellow bloggers Kev Leitch and Larry Arnold.

The article begins:

Today, an event run by and for autistic people kicks off in Somerset, the latest act of a burgeoning autism rights movement. Emine Saner reports on the campaign to celebrate difference, rather than cure it.

It contains some really good insights from the people she interviewed. For example, Gareth Nelson (pictured above) of Aspies for Freedom says:

I don’t think you should cure something that isn’t purely negative, It’s the same as black people, who seem to be more at risk of sickle cell disease than white people but you’re not going to attempt to cure ‘blackness’ to cure sickle cell.

The only unfortunate thing about the article is that it does play up the role of Aspies for Freedom (AFF) at the expense of other initiatives. I was surprised to read that:

Nelson, with his wife Amy, who also has AS, is leading the UK’s autism rights movement.

And I am not convinced that AFF has 20000 members when the discussion forum on their webite has less than 6000 members and many of those are from overseas. This is unfortunate as one of the strengths of the emergent movement for autism rights and acceptance for autistic people is that there are many voices and all are free to explore important differences as well as points of agreement. As an example, Larry Arnold and I work together within the structures of the NAS and are in broad agreement on many issues. But we differ sharply in our attitude to the role of scientific research in autism.

I would also have liked to read more about Autscape. This event is unique in Europe. It takes its inspiration from a similar event in America called Autreat. Like the AFF, Autscape began three years ago but it makes no leadership claims. Instead it aims to:

  • Serve as a haven created by autistic people. An autistic space.
  • Provide a venue where the majority of speakers will be autistic.
  • Create possibilities within the conference for autistic people to communicate and socialise with other autistic people on their own terms.
  • Educate and inform on issues arising from within the autistic community.
  • Advocacy and self-advocacy.
  • Promote acceptance of autistic people in their own environments.
  • Enhance the lives of autistic people through empowerment, advocacy, and a nice relaxing time.

But these minor criticisms should not detract from a very valuable article in which the author shows respect for autistic people and accurately reports their views.

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