Autism Speaks opposes ruling allowing electric shock therapy

Devices used to curb harming behaviors in disabled children and adults have been banned since 2020

July 10, 2021

(July 8, 2021) -- A federal appellate court decision this week overturned a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on the use of electric shock devices in aversion therapy for children and adults with self-harming or aggressive behaviors.

The ban on electrical stimulation devices (ESDs) to treat aggressive or harming behaviors, typically in children and adults severely affected by developmental disorders including autism, has been in place since March 2020. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the ban on July 6, saying the FDA did not have the authority to regulate medical practice.

Autism Speaks continues to support the ban on the use of ESDs and aversion therapy and affirms its 2016 statement when the ban was first proposed by the FDA:

A federal court this week overturned an FDA ban on electric shock devices used as a form of aversion therapy on children and adults with self-harming and aggressive behaviors. Autism Speaks opposes the use of these electrical stimulation devices (ESDs) and continues to support the ban on their use. Painful aversive conditioning has no place in the treatment of autism or any developmental disorder. We urge the FDA to pursue available legal options to protect people with disabilities from this practice. 

Virtually all autism centers and mental health hospitals in the United States have disavowed aversive shock therapy. However, the practice remains legal in the U.S. The one educational center for children with severe developmental disabilities in Massachusetts that manufactures and uses the devices challenged the ban in court, leading to this week’s decision.

In its original ban on ESDs, the FDA noted that they present risks for psychological harm, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, fear, panic and other negative outcomes. They also pose physical risks of pain and damage to tissues such as skin.