After years of tacitly endorsing the only facility in the country known to use electric shocks to address behavior in those with developmental disabilities, a major behavior analysis organization is coming out against the practice.

The Association for Behavior Analysis International, or ABAI, voted this week to adopt a position statement indicating that “we strongly oppose the use of contingent electric skin shock (CESS) under any condition.”

The move was favored by 65% of the organization’s members even though an ABAI task force created to assess the use of electric skin shock treatment had recommended that the practice be opposed “except under extraordinary circumstances.”

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ABAI is a big player in the world of behavior analysis, accrediting graduate degree programs and serving as a membership organization for practitioners, so the group’s position on what’s considered acceptable practice holds significant sway.

At issue is the use of special devices to administer skin shocks in order to condition people not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.

Currently, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Mass. — which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems — is the only place known to use such devices.

Disability advocates have pressed for years to end the practice and the Food and Drug Administration finalized a ban on the devices in 2020 saying that they pose an “unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” The agency pointed to evidence of psychological and physical risks including burns, tissue damage, worsening underlying symptoms, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the FDA ban was overturned in court and more recently there have been efforts in Congress to bar the electric shock devices.

All the while, ABAI has allowed the Rotenberg Center to sponsor and present at their conferences. But earlier this year, the group formed a task force to consider a position statement on the use of electric skin shock after members raised concerns. The task force ultimately recommended a position statement opposing the practice with some exceptions, but the group’s full membership voted instead to oppose the use of electric skin shock outright.

“The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) and its members respect the personal dignity and worth of every human being and affirm each individual’s right to effective behavioral treatment and to freedom from inappropriate, unnecessary, and/or intrusive interventions,” reads the statement. “Behavior analytic principles constitute the foundation of the professional practice of applied behavior analysis and are essential to ethically sound and effective treatment programs. In accordance with these values, we strongly oppose the use of contingent electric skin shock (CESS) under any condition.”

The new statement, which now represents the organization’s official position, goes on to cite limited supporting evidence for electric skin shock and notes that it is an “ethically questionable practice.”

Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which has long protested ABAI for allowing the Rotenberg Center to participate in its conferences, said the group’s vote to oppose electric shock is significant.

“Until this month, ABAI had fully supported the Judge Rotenberg Center. While they didn’t have an official position on the use of electric skin shock, they allowed the JRC to sponsor and exhibit at their conference, and held several conference sessions over the years where staff from the JRC presented about the use of skin shock in ABA,” Gross said. “The results of the membership vote indicate that even if the leadership of ABAI supports the JRC, the broader field of ABA professionals does not.”

Gross said her group is now hoping that ABAI will work with them to ask federal lawmakers to include a ban on the use of electric shock devices in a legislative package that’s expected to be approved before the end of the year.

Neither ABAI or the Rotenberg Center responded to a request for comment about the new position statement. However, the Rotenberg Center said it would continue to push back against efforts in Congress to ban the use of electric shock.

“The parents and guardians of clients of the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) will continue to work to ensure that that the life-saving electrical stimulation device (ESD) treatment remains available to those for whom all other treatment options have been tried and failed. Allowing the use of ESDs as part of these clients’ treatment plans is a matter of life or death,” the Rotenberg Center said in a statement.

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