The Guardian newspaper has reported about practices at a school for children with severe autism and emotional problems in Boston, USA. In the year 2011, the school used electric shock treatments to try and prevent and eliminate challenging behaviour.
Against punishment & aversive strategies
Punishment is the contingent presentation or withdrawal of a stimulus resulting in a future decrease in response strength. An aversive is a stimulus or event one would ordinarily act to avoid. To differentiate between the two, punishment effectively reduces the frequency of a behaviour. If a stimulus is presented or withdrawn with the intention of reducing frequency of behaviour, but does not do so, it is deemed aversive. The Guardian article reports that one young person, Brandon, then aged 12, was given no fewer than 5,000 shocks – without success.
People use punishment for a number of reasons. It may be a lack of response alternatives – do they know any other ways to react in those conditions? For example, in classroom situations, ‘time-out’ is readily available and easy to implement. The use of strategies like this can also be developed through a modelling effect – it was the response used by parents, grandparent, teachers as the person was growing up. Punishment often serves to treat behaviour by reducing it’s frequency in that instance, to provide protection from the behaviour, and as a useful way of emotional expression and control by the person instigating the punishment.
So it solves an immediate problem – a short-term solution. However, punishment doesn’t teach any new skills – it teaches people to avoid situations but the function that the behaviour was serving still exists. This can be very problematic long-term as the person must devise other ways of communicating that need.
In June 2010 the human rights group Disability Rights International released a report seeking to debunk Israel’s claim for the validity of “aversive treatment”. The use of electric shocks was not a treatment at all, it said, but torture.
Examples from all around the world have demonstrated that positive behaviour support can effectively reduce challenging behaviour and teach people new ways of communicating effectively to get their needs met. Longitudinal instruction designed to teach skills and competencies that facilitate behavioural change for the purpose of social integration – not aversive treatments that dehumanise and cause pain to vulnerable children.