The story behind that viral video of an autistic boy receiving electroshock "therapy"

New York Magazine has a feature out about the Judge Rotenberg Center (formerly the Behavior Research Institute), a controversial institution targeted by Anonymous when a video showing an autistic child receiving electrical shocks went viral. Andre McCollins was the boy in that video, which was leaked to a local Fox News affiliate in Boston. You can watch a copy here. It's very disturbing. Mother Jones covered the school in an earlier investigative series here, back in 2007.


  1. In my previous marriage, I had a stepson who was very severely mentally disabled; he is considered to have the intelligence of a small baby though he is now in his 20s. He had a number of disturbing behaviors, such as whacking himself in the jaw or picking at his eye, which they classified as “self-stimulating.” 

    He lives in a very good home staffed by extremely patient people. I could not believe the progress they made with him on many behaviors that seemed to me to be impossible for him to learn, considering his extremely limited mental capabilities. For example, when he was age 9 they decided to potty train him. He had been in diapers up until that time. It took them a year, but they got him successfully using the toilet every time except at night. Can you imagine what the staff went through that year, having to deal with messes of a 9 year old day after day? However, with his self-stimulating behaviors they made very little progress over the years, despite their patience and diligence. They would try to redirect him to a different behavior, but often he could only be distracted for a few seconds. I understand that there are other kids whose self-stimulating behaviors are even more extreme than his are. I have heard of these kinds of “therapies,” to try to change the behavior that is so inexplicable and disturbing. I do understand why the parents are desperate to find something that will work. It is hard to be around a person you love who is repetitively, obsessively hurting himself. I do not believe that punishment ever helps a person to internalize new behavior, yet, it is true that someone who lives in fear of punishment will avoid receiving that punishment and so it must seem to parents that these negative techniques are effective. To me, obedience is not the goal of child-rearing; however, when you have a disabled child much of the focus is on making this person easier for people to be around – to make it easier to to give him medicine, to dress him, to be around him while he eats with his limited motor skills, to have him accept help so that he can continue to improve. It is a very fine line between seeking obedience and seeking to train someone to be more manageable.I do not in any way condone what was done to this poor boy. It is appalling. However, I thought I could shed some light on how desperate parents of these children feel, and how they might be convinced to try something so extreme.

    1. As per my earlier comment, the mother enthusiastically accepting such extreme methods was exactly what threw me most. I can easily imagine how such a situation can cause parents to become desperate and foolish but from your example it seemed like your stepson was well cared for.

      Did you ex wife seriously consider methods like this before finding him good carers?

      1. My stepson never developed behaviors so extreme they could not be tolerated; however, there were choices made with medication that kept my stepson less aggressive than he could have been. In his case, many many medicines were necessary to keep him alive so adjusting medicine doses was something that his caregivers had come to accept as part of keeping him healthy.

        In the case of the boy in the article, he could function without medicine and I guess his mother was affected by the school’s line against using it. 

        Placements at places that will care for a child round the clock are hard to come by and vary by state. She may not have had many other options for help.

        Getting children into school or a program early makes a difference. If this child had little training early on, he may have been almost unmanageable as he became a teenager and too big to physically control. I saw a couple of kids who had not had any school until age 9 (for one) and age 12 (for another). Both were very wild acting and did not accept help easily.

  2. While the torturers are clearly the main villains here it is hard to understand a mother allowing her son to be hooked up to an instrument of torture, disciplining her son by threatening him with said instrument but then being surprised to discover her son was being abused.

    Cheryl McCollins got her first hint that something was wrong when she answered her phone on the evening of October 25, 2002.

    Cheryl had agreed to let the school’s staff attach this device to her son, figuring it might help control his behavior better than the Risperdal or Clonidine he’d taken. By now, he had been hooked up to it for seven months, and she could tell it scared him: When he’d leave the school with her wearing the device, all she had to do was hold up the activator to get him to stop misbehaving.

    1.  For the moment, place yourself in her shoes.

      You have a child who is very hard to control, you have medical professionals telling you this works better.

      We are trained to trust Doctors and people in authority, look at the people willingly being felt up by the TSA who say it isn’t violating their rights.

      She is punishing herself everyday for what she allowed to happen, she knows she screwed up in this but IIRC she gave birth to him at 16 – she might not have had all of the information or life experience she needed to be a parent.

      When you see kids misbehaving in stores, people always look at the parent with that judging look of…  just control them.  We don’t care why the kid is acting out, we want the parent to take control and fix it because it bothers us.

      As a society we treat people who are “different” well differently, and in the case of mental deficiencies we want to not see them, we imagine them smiling and happy in a group home where everything is sunshine and ponies… unless it takes tax money to offer that sort of treatment.  Then we just want them warehoused out of sight so we don’t have to accept that as a society we suck.

      She tried very hard to give him a better life, she screwed up but she had a lot of help down that path.  She owns her failure, whats the excuse for the rest of us turning our backs on helping those who need help? 

      Greatest Nation on the planet and we have people living in cardboard boxes because it cost to much to have help for them.

      1. At the same time, imagine the reaction of your hypothetical shoppers if the mother controlled the kid by electrocution. I doubt very much that citizens of your society or mine would react with approving nods.

        Dont get me wrong though. The school and its staff are the main villains as I said. The judges whose approval was needed before each kid was hooked to these monstrosities should be investigated also.

        If a kids own mother goes out of her way to get him tortured that will always blow my mind though. I agree with you when you blame this on a deference to authority but the enthusiastic participation in the torture of your child is surely an extreme that most parents would not take this to.

        1. Having been shopping with a disabled kid, you get used to the disapproving stares no matter what you do. Maybe having him strapped up so he could be controlled in a public place seemed preferable to him going into a full on tantrum or starting to whack his head on something. 

          1. To be clear, I see no evidence that the boys mother tortured him in a supermarket. I would be very surprised to find out she did.

            That was a hypothetical scenario I invented to attempt to show the absurdity of torturing your child to avoid the disapproval of others.

            I understand that you have walked in this womans shoes to an extent and that you sympathize with her. Despite her enormous error in judgement I sympathize with her myself. I think you should ask yourself though whether there is any behaviour so terrible that you have to condemn it no matter how desperate she felt.

            Publicly torturing your son via electrocution to avoid a few disapproving glances is not something that I believe happened but I would have thought it difficult to defend.

          2. It won’t let me re-reply but I totally get your point. I’m giving her some slack because I think she handled it really well after she found out what was going on. It took her a really long time but she got that video and she made it public, which took some guts. She knew people would think she was terrible for choosing to put her child through that treatment, but she risked that condemnation to expose the mistreatment of her son.

          3. I agree completely with that. As soon as she discovered the extent of the mistreatment she behaved heroically.

  3. I should say, I haven’t watched the video – (more an issue of my outdated powerpc mac g5) but back in the 80s I worked for several years with autistic children in a school that operated both for residential and day students with varying degrees of autism.  Some kids were occasionally violent to others – ie. hitting, scratching, biting etc. or to abusive to themselves – ie. headbanging, picking at themselves, or swallowing objects.  To deal with self-destructive or violent behaviours the staff had a range of behaviour modification methods, such as positive reinforcement, extinction, negative reinforcement, sometimes token economies all depending on the cause of the behaviour – ie. self-stimulating, or attention seeking etc.  There was only one treatment that was essentially punishment – and that was over-correction ie. when one boy continually picked at a scab on his face the staff would take him to the washroom and wash his face with a sponge.  To any outsider, it might have seemed a violent intervention but it did reduce the behaviour.  (And they had tried pretty much everything else).   The one thing I recall the most is one day I coming home and turning on the national news seeing a story about autism featuring one of the kids at our school and his treatment. Everything about the story was misrepresented – the parents views, the facilities treatment programs, and in the end I was left wondering what the whole exercise was about – to make a dramatic story? It was my first experience with the media.  

  4. I’m not a physician (and don’t want to watch the video), but understand that ECT, under some circumstances, can be helpful to people with major depression or mental illnesses.  (Dick Cavett:  
     “In my case, ECT was miraculous. My wife was dubious, but when she came into my room afterward, I sat up and said, ‘Look who’s back among the living.’ It was like a magic wand.”)

    I express no opinion as to whether  ECT is may be appropriate to treat children or people diagnosed with autism.

  5. ECT is not the same as being discussed here. In fact ECT (electricity through the brain) causes permanent brain damage hence the temporary euphoria afterwards which lasts 2 weeks then you are depressed again and also have brain damage.

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