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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The Legacy of B.F. Skinner and "Behaviour Modification"

There's something rotten afoot. It's at the Judge Rotenberg Center and it's electric shock and other aversive "therapies" for the "treatment" of autistic and other developmentally disabled individuals. B.F. Skinner still floats in our hallowed halls -- be it schools or of "child-rearing" -- in our systems of rewards and punishments for autistic and other children. Consider the legacy of behaviourism:

Please read this article released in Mother Jones.

If people feel strongly about ending this torture, please contact the American Psychological Association at the address below.

Lynn F. Bufka PhD
Assistant Executive Director
Practice Research & Policy
American Psychological Association
750 First St. NE
Washington D.C. 20002


Anonymous Matthew L. Israel said...

Ms. Gonnerman’s article “School of Shock,” which appears in the September/October issue of the Mother Jones magazine, is an entirely one-sided and biased account of the court- and parent-approved behavior modification therapy used at the Judge Rotenberg Center to successfully treat, without drugs, severe (sometimes life-threatening) behavior problems of children and young adults with special needs that have not responded to any other form of treatment. For readers who would like to hear the other side of this story, please see

8:15 AM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Mr. Israel,

I am sure you will have a few commenters on your justification of torture today. The flaw of your argument is to stratify and subjectively determine human worth in this regard: poop-smearing or "severe behavioural problems." Where and how is severity determined? By whom? Are you suggesting that the only way to assist human beings who have difficulties is to torture them? Or are they so "severe" (by your standards) that they no longer deserve the same regard and treatment as humans? And what accounts for the "severity" of "behavioural problems?" Might it be the "treatment" in the first place?

I find it difficult to take "the other side of the story" to justify torture, period. No one deserves this kind of treatment and there are other means to assist individuals. Those who have been subjected to institutionalization and dehumanizing "treatments" will hopefully comment here themselves.

I have another grave concern. It stems from National Autism Surveillance strategies and government lists and government mandated ABA programs as "the only way to cure autism." Will my son be subjugated one day to your opinions about how he MUST behave and respond and thus be a part of a program to beat the autism out of him? Who gets to decide what is normal, right, or "severe?"

8:39 AM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Quote from Mr. Israel:

"In behavioral treatment, normalization is accepted as the goal of the treatment process, but not as the means for reaching that goal. Indeed, behavioral procedures that will effectively eliminate problematic behaviors and help the student imrpove his/her condition and live a more normal life often have to be highly ABNORMAL at first until the behavior changes sufficiently. As the behavior changes, however, the environmental conditions can are made increasingly normal... in order to reach that goal it may be necessary to do some HIGHLY ABNORMAL [caps mine] procedures within the operating rooms and in the emergency and intensive care wards of the hospital."

I will reserve my comments on the many questionable remarks you make well enough on your own.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

Court-approved? I wonder if any party to these court proceedings ever objects to the use of this procedure, of if the court only has evidence in favor of its use to go on. If there's no objection, then court approval doesn't mean much.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

I looked at JRC's rebuttal to the Mother Jones article, in which the use of aversives is compared to medical or dental procedures. The big difference is that the use of aversives is a punishment and that the purpose of this particular aversive is calculated to cause pain. No medical or dental procedure is used that way, unless you count chemical castration, which is also used on autistic kids by some people. Otherwise, medical and dental procedures are not used for punishment, and if they are painful, they are done with an anesthetic to minimize the pain. There is no comparison, really.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Derrick Jeffries said...

The director of the JRC has posted what appears to be a generic comment here. He has posted similar, and sometimes identical, comments around the internet, usually wherever the Jennifer Gonnerman, "School of Shock" article is referenced. He rarely follows up on these.

Although the director will often mention that he studied under Skinner, it should be noted that his Methods are not Skinnerian.

In the latter years of Dr. Skinner’s life, he made it very clear that he did not condone practices such as those used at JRC. At the age of 83 he was interviewed by Daniel Goleman of the New York Times. The following words written in an article titled, "Embattled Giant Of Psychology Speaks His Mind," are the result of that interview:

“The use of punishment is another issue Dr. Skinner still feels impassioned about. He is an ardent opponent of the use of punishment, such as spanking, or using ''aversives'' -such as pinches and shocks - with autistic children. ''What's wrong with punishments is that they work immediately, but give no long-term results,'' Dr. Skinner said. ''The responses to punishment are either the urge to escape, to counterattack or a stubborn apathy. These are the bad effects you get in prisons or schools, or wherever punishments are used.''

The entire article can be viewed here:

Although I opposed Behavioral practices in general, I think it is important to make a distinction between mainstream Behaviorists and radical Behaviorists. However, it seems as though mainstream Behaviorists are doing nothing to distinguish or separate themselves from the radical variety. For example, ABA International tolerates the use of aversives such as shocks. This is evident here:

ABA also allows the JRC director to make presentations at ABA International meetings.

The many supporters of ABA practices may not be aware of this aspect of Behaviorism. ABA International would perhaps like people to believe that they have moved beyond aversive practices, but in reality it does not appear that they have.

We must be vigilant!

12:38 PM  
Blogger abfh said...

Estée, when I wrote a post about the Judge Rotenberg Center last year, I got several comments from JRC survivors. Here are just a few excerpts:

"I was in this program for two years and two months and I don't feel comfortable talking about the things that they have done to me or other people on a public blog. All I will say is that there is more going on then what the news is even reporting. If you haven't heard the screams of people you live in close quarters with or the smell of their burning flesh and cries for days on end you can't really feel the pain of the people who went here and are still there."

"I my self is student in JRC and i'm on a visit at home right now the school is terrible they are so inhumane I wish some one can come save us because no matter how many things I did in the past I don't deserve this."

"You know whats amazing about the staff at JRC as well. I know personally of staff and student relationships going on there. Staff members dating students,teachers!!! AMAZING AND DISGUSTING."

"People do not discuss the inappropriate relationships that go on between staff and students or the fact that many older kids/adults who are there for pedophilic behavior are your roommates and classmates and are encouraged to interact with all students even the younger ones!"

We all need to keep the spotlight on this sickening abuse of defenseless children and keep fighting to shut down JRC and other hellhole institutions!

3:06 PM  
Anonymous disgusted with Uncle Matty said...

I think Matthew Israel needs to spend some quality time with some poorly trained trainers while he is hooked up to his strongest GED. I think he needs to be treated like the rat that he is. Apologies to rats everywhere who don't deserve to be compared to Matthew Israel. I hope they put him in a prison cell for what he has done. I hope it is painted in "happy" Barbie playhouse colors and has cheesy Micky Mouse prints on the walls and creepy plastic furniture.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Fore Sam said...

Hey Israel,
I think we should start zapping you until you get your head out of your ass and start treating the kids for mercury poisoning.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Derrick Jeffries said...

Abfh quoted some previous statements from students, including this one:

""You know whats amazing about the staff at JRC as well. I know personally of staff and student relationships going on there. Staff members dating students,teachers!!! AMAZING AND DISGUSTING."

I am suggesting that we consider this very cautiously. I have permission to quote the words of former staff member Greg Miller. He has shared extensive information with me, and he has also been interviewed on national television (ABC Nightline), and he was recently interviewed along with Jennifer Gonnerman on NPR.

Greg explained to me, "JRC is probably one of the safest places from sexual type abuse in the country because of their cameras everywhere."

We may need to keep in mind that some of the students there would do almost anything to be free from that place. Many of them are also very intelligent and sometimes clever. Fabricating a story in the hope of charges being filed may seem like a possible way of escape. Knowing what they are subject to on a daily basis, it should not be difficult to imagine that they may be willing to try anything to get out of that house of torture. We might do the same thing under those circumstances.

I am one who definitely opposes JRC practices, but I am suggesting that we be very careful about what we choose to believe. There is plenty of factual information that reveals abuse, without us needing to rely on information that may be impossible for us to prove true or false.

If a student has first hand information or evidence of a crime, then whoever the student presents that information to has a responsibility to contact the authorities. It is then the responsibility of law enforcement personnel to investigate and perhaps prosecute. Unless there is a conviction we as advocates may have no basis for believing or reporting that sexual abuse is taking place there.

Perhaps the only times when activities are not monitored by cameras is during transportation. I suspect that there are tight time frames during those events.

I am only suggesting that we be cautious about this. The JRC may be a place of severe pain and oppression, but I have not read any convincing evidence that would indicate that it is a house of sexual abuse and promiscuity.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Skinner took a strong stance agaisnt punishment. This is plainly stated even in his early writings.

@Derrick, radical behaviorism, does not mean "extremist" or really behavior analytic, or that the radical behaviorist approves of punishment.

It is "radical" because we seperated from earlier sorts of behaviorism. Namely, in that we re-included thoughts and feelings as items that should be studied.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous tact said...

I would like to back up interverbal's comments. Radical behaviourism extended the concept of behaviour to internal events. Skinner was a radical behaviourist. And Skinner opposed aversives as being ineffective.

Talk about a straw man.

While Skinner may or may not agree with what JRC are doing, aversives are not used as learning aides at JRC, rather aversives suppress harmful behaviour sufficiently to allow the child to learn alternative behaviours.

The behaviours which result in the use of aversives are shockingly self-destructive. Poo-smearing (one of my son's favourite activities by the way) would not result in a court order for aversives - chewing off ones tongue or picking holes in ones scalp is a different matter. Without the use of aversives, the poor child will never learn alternitive ways of expressing themselves.

10:51 PM  

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