Chapter 20. Prisoners of Silence

Thousands of children in the U.S. (and in other countries) are born with a severe mental handicap known as autism. No doubt, the classification of autism includes many different specific disabilities, but autistic people are unable to communicate. As a consequence, no one really knows if they are able to learn.

In the last decade or so, a revolutionary new method of dealing with autistic children was invented. First used in Australia, it was rapidly adopted by many institutions in the U.S. It is known as Facilitated Communication (FC, for short), and the principle idea behind it is that autistic children can learn but just cannot communicate what has been learned. FC is a tool to help the person communicate.

FC works like this. An autistic person is placed in front of a small keyboard. Next to this person sits an adult (the facilitator), who merely holds the autistic person's arm above the keyboard, so that a finger hangs down and can hit keys one at a time. The keyboard is connected to a printer that prints the letters being typed. In theory, these letters (words) represent the autistic person's thoughts.

When first introduced, FC seemed the most remarkable technology in the history of autism. Autistic people changed from being perceived as severely retarded to being perceived as of normal intelligence, merely needing help to communicate. Social workers were delighted, as were the parents of these children.

Everything with FC seemed fine. Not everyone was convinced that it really worked, but it seemed harmless at best. Then, however, things took a turn for the worse. Some of the FC transcripts graphically indicated sexual abuse. When these transcripts appeared, children were yanked from their parents and put into foster care. Families were being separated by the state because of the typed words. FC was no longer harmless. If the typed words were true, FC was helping to free kids from desperate situations. If the typed words were not true, however, FC was destroying families.

How was one to decide if the typed words were true? A smart lawyer brought into one of the abuse cases devised a clever test. His idea was to decide WHO was authoring the words -- the autistic child or the facilitator. This test was not quite the same as deciding if the typed words were true, because even if they came from the child, they might not be true. But if the words were not coming from the child, then they most certainly were not true.

The problem in deciding whether the words came from the child was that FC was usually done in a setting in which both the child and the facilitator were given the same information; the facilitator knew what answer was expected, so could possibly be influencing the answer in subtle ways. In essence, there was a correlation present -- both the facilitator and child were being exposed to the same environment.

The test to decide who was authoring the words was simple in hindsight: the child and facilitator were shown different objects and the team was then asked to describe what they saw. It would become immediately clear who was typing the words.

And the test proved decisive: the descriptions were always of what the facilitator saw. FC was a fraud

The kind of test used to debunk FC is known as an experiment. In the absence of the experiment, we had no way of knowing whether the words came from the facilitator or child. The experiment manipulated the normal mode of FC in which both the facilitator and child were given the same information to a mode in which they were shown different information. By deviating from this "natural order" of things in a specific way, it was easy to find out that the child was not choosing the keys.


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Copyright 1996-2000 Craig M. Pease & James J. Bull