The FDA and Banning Shock Therapy

The FDA is currently debating whether skin shocking devices should be banned for use on patients with autism and developmental/intellectual disabilities that display self-harmful or violent behaviors. The only treatment center to use skin shocks, the Judge Rotenburg Center in Caton, Mass., treats 55 patients with skin shocks. The center and some families claim that these skin shocks have been the only way to treat the violent behavior of certain disabled individuals being treated at the center. The skin shocks are delivered with a device attached to the arms or legs, called a GED or graduated electronic decelerator, which delivers a 2-second shock to the patient when he or she becomes violent or self-harmful. Before the center can use the shocking device, they must be granted court approval. The center and various patients describe the shocks as equivalent to a bee sting or a hard pinch; others say it is worse than that, with one comparing it to being “stung by a thousand bees.” Another patient claims that the shocks are terribly painful, and have caused nightmares. However, one mother said that the only treatment that worked on her son was shock therapy, and told the FDA via video, “Do not take away what is saving his life.” An advisory committee for the FDA identified that the devices pose a high risk, although they noted that some less jarring therapy methods have proved ineffective.

The controversy over skin shocks is understandable. Can a severely autistic or developmentally/intellectually disabled individual really convey whether the therapy is too painful or not? Can therapists tell if the therapy is effective if patients cannot properly communicate? This is a population that cannot always speak for themselves, as FDA committee members point out. However, if this really is the only therapy that works for certain individuals after all other treatment options have failed, should we deny them the right to a treatment that works for them? If shock therapy truly is helping patients function as normally as possible, would taking it away cause more harm than good?

What do you think about shock therapy? Should the FDA ban the shocking devices, or let the center continue to use them on patients?

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Amy is a Hillman Intern and the Digital Media Assistant Managing Editor at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. She is a senior Honor Scholar and Political Science major with a Russian studies minor at DePauw University. She has spent time abroad in the Czech Republic and worked in Washington, D.C., and hopes to return to D.C. after graduation.