Shock Treatment for Children with Autism?


Andrey Volodin

According to the Washington Post,  Electroconvulsive Therapy Machines (ECT) will soon be required to undergo the same rigorous testing as other medical equipment currently on the market.  A 1974 law mandating the close scrutiny of new medical devices allowed ECT to be grandfathered in and escape scrutiny.  Now, this momentous decision will have far-reaching consequences for ECT use in the future, particularly when it applies to those with autism.

As a treatment for severe depression and other mental disorders, ECT or ¨Shock Treatment,¨ as it is commonly referred to, delivers an electrical current to the brain, which induces a seizure.  This seizure causes the patient to temporarily lose consciousness.  Scientists don’t understand why the clinically-induced seizures relieve psychiatric symptoms in some patients, though they think it that it is somehow linked with the brain’s neurotransmitters.

Like chemotherapy, the patient must adhere to a maintenance schedule of further treatments.

Serious memory loss is a big side-effect of ECT.  Others report hallucinations and the inability to engage in creative activities they once enjoyed.  Proponents describe the therapy as life saving, while others contend it is barbaric and unconscionable, sending medical science back to the Middle Ages.

ECT has been around for seventy years but recently has been used to treat children with autism, particularly those who are self-injurious.  Apparently, in some cases, incidents of self-harm by these children are significantly reduced by ECT therapy.

Parents of children who injure themselves most likely turn to ECT treatment as a last resort and are understandably relieved to see their child’s self destructive behaviors diminished.  However, no studies have been done on the long-term effects of ECT use on children with autism, and that remains a major concern.  Certainly, using it in extreme cases should not open the door to more widespread autism applications.

But one of several medical abstracts (¨Could ECT Be Effective in Autism?¨2004), reveals a wistfulness in the medical community to do just that:

There are recent speculations that certain types of autism may be the earliest expression of catatonia and that both disorders have identical risk factors. Therefore, ECT may improve autism and, if started early enough, may prevent further development of autistic symptoms in some children.

The study goes on to say that no assessments of the use of ECT in children have been done since the 1940´s when it was decreed safe and effective for people of all ages, and the prejudice against it is the biggest obstacle that must be overcome.

Fortunately, the FDA mandating a complete review of ECT machines will help put on the brakes on their widespread use before discovering the potential long-term ramifications.

4 Responses to Shock Treatment for Children with Autism?

  1. Leslie says:

    I suggest you read the story on a blog titled, “Controversial Adjunctive Therapy for Autism and Self-Injurious Behavior: Part Seven” it’s at autismseizureselfinjuriousbehavior.com. The autistic child in this story once used skin shock, and it stopped the self-injurious behavior. When the skin shock was stopped, because state officials wouldn’t use it in his group home setting, he eventually suffered a hematoma to ear, which required two surgeries to repair, and now he’s back home with family and their trying hard to get him back to where he isn’t hitting himself again. I don’t think they’re using skin shock now, however, as he’s too old now perhaps? Not sure. The blog article cites Kitty Dukakis and ECT therapy.

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you for these references. Self injurious behavior is in a class all its own and I know shock treatment has been helpful in this regard. And I realize shock treatment has been effective for others on and off the spectrum.

    As with any treatment course, the harmful side effects must be weighed against the benefits and that balance is certainly different in every situation.

    My main concern is that its use not be expanded unnecessarily, in the way that anti-psychotics applications increased beyond the parameters for which it was intended.

  3. Lyle says:

    Skin shock therapy is effective short term for temporary purposes only. It should never be relied on as a long term therapy. The reason so many people with severe autism and self injurious behavior end up on skin shock is because experts don’t know how to address self abuse in some autistic persons, so they spend years receiving ineffective therapies, or worse, doped up on anti-psychotics that cause brain damage and things like retrocollis and tardive diskinesia. That said, it’s clear there are some types of autism that require constant attention and pro-active behavioral and medical interventions. Sadly, state agencies like Regional Centers seldom provide the right level of supports (often 2:1) for these special cases, so the parents, being exhausted both mentally and physically give their kids to these skin shock schools. So who is really to blame? The school that took the autistic kids that everyone else gave up on and never helped, or the school that got them and used skin shock? Something to think about. It all comes down to money. State agencies don’t want to spend the money on proper levels of supports at home or even in group homes, yet when an autistic person ends up having to rely on skin shock, they rush to fight against the skin shock therapy, though they don’t have or offer alternatives to skin shock.

  4. Susan says:

    thanks for this. It does constitute torture.

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