The Post recently published two articles concerning the use of an electric-shock device to stop self-injurious behavior in people with autism and mental retardation {Metro, Aug. 27; Health, Sept. 1}. We wish to state that there are serious moral and legal concerns about the use of this type of aversive treatment, as well as a body of evidence that calls into question the relative effectiveness of such treatment.

The use of electroshock therapy to stop self-injurious behavior is a form of punishment. Under this treatment regime, an attempt is made to link a painful stimulus with a particular inappropriate behavior in order to eliminate that behavior.

We ask, as a number of behavioral psychologists have asked us, whether society can sanction for use with disabled citizens forms of punishment, such as electroshock, that would never be tolerated for use with nonhandicapped children and adults. Additionally, under both the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, Congress has charged the federal government with guaranteeing the rights of these vulnerable populations. As representatives of federal agencies serving these populations, we have a duty to consider whether the use of aversive punishment as a treatment violates these protected rights.

Some research shows that nonpunishing interventions are at least as effective as and usually more effective than punishment in producing changes in behavior that are durable, widespread and without negative side effects. B. F. Skinner, the father of behavioral psychology, recently expressed his views regarding the use of aversive punishments in an interview in The New York Times:

"What's wrong with punishments is that they work immediately, but give no long-term results." He added: "The responses to punishment are either to escape, to counterattack or a stubborn apathy."

It is time that public attention focus on the central question of whether the use of aversive treatments has any place in the behavior management of vulnerable populations. To ask this question is certainly not to signal any obvious answers, but rather to energize a responsible debate on the issue. MADELEINE WILL Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services WILLIAM BRADFORD REYNOLDS Assistant Attorney General Washington