A lot of people might be surprised to know that shock therapy or Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is still being used in the U.S. to treat certain mental illnesses including autism and depression. The practice has been around since 1785 when its first use was documented in the London Medical Journal. The use of ECT became widespread in the U.S. during the 1940s, but later decreased due to negative portrayal of the procedure in the media.
The stigma related to Autism and other mental illness, as well as the 1975 release of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, which portrayed ECT in an extremely negative light, likely contributed to the decline in the use of ECT as a treatment method for Autism. People may have believed that the practice died but for some it is still a horrible reality. For others, the fact that shock therapy is still being used to treat Autism is considered a blessing.
In Massachusetts, at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), some parents and students consider the treatment torturous. The center was in the news in 2012, when a video tape showing an Autistic student, Andre McCollins, receiving about 30 shocks while he was tied to a restraining board for about 7 hours, was released. His horrified mother, Cheryl McCollins, was quoted as saying, “”Children are being abused, tortured, and controlled.”
Earlier this year, another JRC student testified before a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel, a panel convened to discuss a ban on the use of ECT in the U.S. Jennifer Msumba, one of the center’s Autistic students, described having a device, similar to a fanny pack or a backpack, strapped to her while she went about her daily activities. The device allowed staff members to administer an electric shock via remote control every time she violated her behavior contract. Jennifer described sometimes being shocked multiple times for one offense.
Greg Miller, formerly a JRC teacher, left his employment because he did not agree with the use of electron shock therapy for minor offenses like failing to remove one’s jacket. For Jennifer and Andre, the experience was horrifying. For others, the opportunity to use ECT for the treatment of Autism did not come soon enough.
Amy Lutz, author of Each Day I Like It Better: Autism, ECT, and the Treatment of Our Most Impaired Children, cannot say enough about the miraculous transformation that the use of ECT brought about in her son Jonah’s life. She shares the story of years of treatment, therapy, hospitalizations, and medicine, none of which helped calm Jonah’s rage. The use of ECT wrought such an amazing change in Jonah’s demeanor that Lutz cannot figure out why so many people are against it as a treatment modality. She tells the story of other families that have had similar success stories.
According to Lutz, about 100,000 people in the U.S. receive ECT to treat not only Autism but conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Schizophrenia, and some mood disorders as well. The most frequent mentioned downside of ECT is short-term memory loss. Many who are pleased with the treatment outcomes swear that memory loss is a small sacrifice, especially when weighed against the side effects related to some of the drugs used to treat Autism.
In 2013, a U.N. official labeled the use of ECT a form of torture. Reports from students like Jennifer Msumba and Andre McCollins would seem to support that statement but there is another side of the story. Amy Lutz has written her personal story detailing her young son’s journey from breaking a teacher’s nose while in kindergarten to studying Hebrew as a teenager. Media portrayal may have caused ECT to leave a bad taste in a lot of mouths, but Amy Lutz is one parent who is extremely grateful that shock therapy is still being used to treat Autism.
By Constance Spruill