WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government was urged Wednesday to halt the use of an electric shock device designed to keep severely retarded and autistic people from injuring themselves.
Thirteen groups ranging from the Association of Retarded Citizens to the Mental Health Law Project denounced the devices as unconstitutional and a primitive, punitive means of treating the disabled.
″Let us not return to the Dark Ages,″ said Janet Salzano, mother of a 30- year-old autistic son. ″It is my philosophy that the disabled have the same rights as everyone else in America.″
″We have alternatives,″ said Luanna Meyer, a special education and rehabilitation professor at Syracuse University. ″I do not believe that we need to return to the kinds of punishments that we used in the past.″
The device in question, called a self-injurious behavior inhibiting system (SIBIS), was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration and registered last June for commercial sale and distribution to doctors and psychologists.
It consists of lightweight headgear and an arm or leg band, and administers an electric shock similar to a pinch or static electricity when the person inflicts a blow to his or her head.
It is estimated that 50,000 people suffer from the mysterious self- destructiv e syndrome in which they bang their heads against the floor or wall or beat their heads and faces with their fists. Drugs and physical restraints are often used to try to stop the self-inflicted blows when other approaches fail.
Frank Laski, a lawyer from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said SIBIS violates ″the most fundamental concepts of personal dignity, personal autonomy and due process.″
Laski and others called SIBIS a ″pre-experimental″ device that won FDA approval before it was carefully researched or proven effective. They said other, more positive treatments are available to help reduce self-destructive behavior - for example moving people from institutional to community settings.
Their news conference was interrupted by a retired Marine colonel who said SIBIS had dramatically improved the lives of his severely retarded twin daughters. They are 37 and live in an Italian institution run by nuns.
″They’ve stopped tearing their clothes off. They’ve stopped hitting themselves,″ said Bernard McShane. ″This thing works. There is a case, under close medical supervision, for this device.″
McShane said one of his daughters is blind from hitting herself and the other had open sores from constantly beating herself. He said the pair began to improve within an hour of wearing the devices last October.
″They now sit and have their dinner with their two roommates. They can participate,″ he said. ″I fully intend to let them wear them for the rest of their lives.″
Thomas Linscheid, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio State University, said he has data ″that prove very definitively that this has been a very effective procedure″ and will be published in a behavioral psychology journal.
He said experts agree that aversive therapy is not the only answer to the problem. But he added, ″If I can stop this person from hitting himself 3,000 times in a six-hour school day, I can do more positive reinforcement.″
Linscheid said the potential for misuse of the device is limited because so many advocacy groups are watching out for the disabled.
Linscheid cited a South Carolina teen-ager who was in restraints for 10 years before starting with SIBIS. Now he has gained 60 pounds, feeds himself and is toilet trained. ″It’s pretty hard to say to parents, ’take that away.‴