Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board condones extremely painful Applied Behavior Analysis skin shock torture.

"In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency," said B.F. Skinner in 1953 in his first edition of Science and Human Behavior. (See Skinner, 2014, p. 183.) Today, however, practitioners of the kind of behaviorism he developed 1 can easily ignore and even punish children who complain about their punishments.

According to the following interpretation of the consent 2 language in the current ethics codes for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), if a child or incapacitated adult says "leave me alone" during a punishment procedure and a parent or guardian has signed an informed consent agreement, then the behavior analyst can continue with the punishment, unless it threatens to cause serious harm and deviates from the customary standard practices accepted by the behavior analysis community. So if the behavior analysis community does not object, then harmful punishment can continue.

The Behavior Analysis Community Condones Noxious Electric Shock

The United Nations calls extremely painful electric skin shock at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) of Applied Behavior Analysis "torture." (Méndez, p. 85)

Shock pain at the (JRC) near Boston, Massachusetts illustrates the most extreme publicized example of a lack of consumer3 consent to behavior modification programs.

Gonnerman (2007, p.1) said about one of the JRC clients,
Employees shocked him for aggressive behavior, he says, but also for minor misdeeds, like yelling or cursing. Each shock lasts two seconds. "It hurts like hell," Rob says. (The school's staff claim it is no more painful than a bee sting; when I tried the shock, it felt like a horde of wasps attacking me all at once. Two seconds never felt so long.) On several occasions, Rob was tied face-down to a four-point restraint board and shocked over and over again by a person he couldn't see. The constant threat of being zapped did persuade him to act less aggressively, but at a high cost. "I thought of killing myself a few times," he says.
Electric pain to autistics and other with disabilities continues unabated at JRC. The government has not yet stopped it and the Ass. for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has unofficially given them the green light. They provide the JRC leaders with audiences of ABA peers.

For example, autism researcher Michelle Dawson (2009) said the "presenters in Symposium #403" at the 2009 ABAI Convention "are all from the Judge Rotenberg Center." They called the event "The use of Contingent Skin Shock (CSS) in treating behaviors other than aggression and self-abuse." JRC founder Dr. Matthew Israel (2009) told the audience how how they had shocked seventy-two students for emitting such behaviors as noncompliance, yelling, and tantrums.

Then Packer (2010) cited Israel as saying, "Each year we update a follow-up study in which we report follow up data on all of our former students that we have been able to keep in touch with. We present this report each year at the annual convention of the ABAI and we post the updated report on our website." 

So on May 27, 2012 the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) ran a protest against JRC at ABAI's May 2012 convention in Seattle (Ne’eman, 2012, p. 2).

And recently, April 24, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Neurological Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee met with the public to "discuss the current knowledge about the safety and effectiveness of aversive conditioning devices that are intended to deliver a noxious electrical stimulus to a patient to modify undesirable behavioral characteristics.... The Agency is considering whether to ban (such) devices." The public submitted 297 comments. The FDA has yet to announce a decision. (Neurological Devices Panel, 2014a, Agenda, par. 1) "A slight majority of the panel concluded that ESDs intended to administer a noxious electrical stimulus for the treatment of SIB and aggressive behavior presented a substantial and unreasonable risk of illness or injury. (Neurological Devices Panel, 2014b, p. 4)

There are no known official positions against these shock devices by any ABA organizations, including the ABAI.

The Consent Clauses in Behavior Analysts' Conduct Guidelines Appear Unenforceable

With reference to the behaviorists who perform carefully-controlled human and animal behavioral change experiments, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) said that for persons "legally incapable of giving informed consent" research should "discontinue...if the person gives clear signs5 of unwillingness to continue participation (2013, Guidelines for Responsible Conduct for Behavior Analysts, 10.04b, Informed Consent)."

During clinical practice in real worlds settings, BCBA's apply the experimental findings to design behavior change programs for individuals with "problems of social importance (Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 2014)." With reference to the clinicians, the BACB said, "The behavior analyst...involves the client or the client-surrogate in the planning of such programs, obtains the consent of the client, and respects the right of the client to terminate services at any time (Guidelines for Responsible Conduct, 10.04b, Informed Consent)."

So the BACB defines the right to dissent during experiments with more objective behavioral language than real-world situations. The clauses where these guidelines fall, however, seem virtually unenforceable.

The BACB said, "The Guidelines (Introduction) may be referenced in complaints alleging violation of Section 6 of the BACB's Disciplinary and Ethical Standards (Standards); these Guidelines, however, are not separately enforced by the BACB." The grounds for issuing "sanctions" (BACB, 2012, Disciplinary and Ethical Standards and Disciplinary Procedures, Introduction) for Section 6 violations include "professional conduct that constitutes an extreme and unjustified deviation from the customary standard of practice accepted in the applied behavior analytic community and (italics added) that creates a serious risk of harm to or deception of consumers (Disciplinary and Ethical Standards, I.6)." Therefore, analysts are permitted to cause a risk of serious harm, as in painful electric skin shock, when the professional community (as represented at ABAI conventions) accepts it as normal and customary (which they do, as shown above.)

Nonetheless, neither BACB document contemplates the existence of any customary rejection of BCBA practices by the public-at-large or the community of people with disabilities.

Therefore, People with Disabilities Are Denied the Right To Dissent

So by this reading, the BACB does not penalize analysts when they harm children or adults with incapacities unless the community-at-large of professional analysts condemns such acts, regardless of what their Guidelines recommend, and regardless of whether or not the children, the general public, the media, and leading advocates with disabilities happen to object. BCBA's have had ample opportunity to rebuke the bizarre culture of the "school of shock" as a "deviation" from their customs, but instead they give them an audience of their peers.

What happens in the real world to people with less power when so many eyes aren't watching? In situations less extreme than Judge Rotenberg's, how many BCBA's follow BACB consent guidelines and solve "problem behaviors with non-aversive strategies?" (See Lavigna and Donnellan, 1985.) With no cameras in the rooms with the analysts, besides the childhood subjects of their behavior change plans, who else can answer these questions?

Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2012). Disciplinary and ethical standards and disciplinary procedures. Littleton, CO: Author. Retrieved from
Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2013). Guidelines for responsible conduct for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author. Retrieved from
Dawson, M. (2009, May 17). Saving autistics and the world: Skin shock at the 2009 ABA convention [web log post]. Retrieved from
Gonnerman, J. (2007, August 20). The school of shock. Mother Jones, 2014, 1-6. Retrieved from
Israel, M. L. (2009). The use of contingent skin shock in treating behaviors other than aggression and self-abuse [Abstract]. Retrieved from
LaVigna, G. W., Donnellan, A. M. (1986). Alternatives to punishment: Solving behavior problems with non-aversive strategies. New York, NY: Irvington Publishers.
Ne’eman, A. (2012, May 24). Join ASAN Seattle in protesting the Judge Rotenberg Center at the ABAI convention! [web log post]. Retrieved from
Neurological Devices Panel, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (2014a). Neurological devices panel of the medical devices advisory committee; Notice of meeting: Request for comments. Retrieved from!documentDetail;D=FDA-2014-N-0238-0001
Neurological Devices Panel, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (2014b). Summary of the Neurological Devices Panel Meeting April 24, 2014. Retrieved from
Packer, L. E. (2010, March 14). Response to Dr. Matthew Israel’s response [web log post]. Retrieved from
Skinner, B. F. (2014). Science and human behavior. Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation. Retrieved from (Original work published 1953)
Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. (2014). Society information. Retrieved from


1 Radical Behaviorism. "In some cases (radical behaviorism) consider(s) the processes through which a vocabulary descriptive of a toothache (and other 'private events') is acquired and maintained." As opposed to Methodological Behaviorism which only considers public events, i.e., an organism emits a behavior (such as walking) that is observable by others. (Skinner, 1999, p. 429-30)

2 (Consent) and dissent are akin to antonyms, opposites.

3 Many advocates with substantial mental health challenges prefer to be called consumers (or survivors) rather than clients or patients. Consumer connotes choice (Zinman, 2009, p. 18), the right to shop around until they find an acceptable professional.

4 "An (aversive stimulus) suppresses behavior it follows (punishment) and increases behavior which allows a person to escape or avoid it (negative reinforcement).... Definition adapted with permission from the work of psychologist Jeanette J Chen, PhD.... (Appetitive stimulus)... applies to a pleasant or wanted event or stimulus, one that a person will naturally try to approach. An appetitive stimulus increases behavior it follows (reinforcement)."

5 For example, newborn infants will seal their lips together and turn their heads away to tell their parents it's time to stop feeding (U. S. Department of Agriculture, p. 45-46).

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I am an advocate for people with disabilities certified to teach special education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I am not a Licensed Psychologist or a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. When in doubt, seek the advice of an MD, a PhD, or a BCBA. My ability to analyze the ethics of ABA stems from the fact that I am disabled and ABA interventions are often done to people like me, which I voluntarily accept, but only when I alone am the person granting consent, and not a parent, sibling, guardian, or institution.