Facilitated communication is a technique said to empower those who have never had the ability to express their thoughts. Most clients are afflicted with autism, developmental disabilities, brain damage, or cerebral palsy.
The client sits at a keyboard and is asked a question by a facilitator or third party. Next, the facilitator grasps the client’s hand, wrist, or elbow, and gauges which way the client’s index finger wants to go. There is no explanation for how the process of getting a thought from a client’s head to a typewriter or computer monitor works. Still, when the idea surfaced in 1977, parents of clients were ecstatic. They were overjoyed to have a window into their child’s mind for the first time. However, scientists, educators, and skeptics had serious questions. Other than Syracuse University, which houses a facilitated communication institute, the field has been rejected by mainstream academia and medicine.
As to the issues raised, the most obvious was that the majority of clients, while supposedly typing through a conduit, were looking away from the keyboard. Many were laughing, shrieking, looking at the ceiling, babbling, or had their eyes closed. Accurately typing without having a reference for where the keyboard is would seem arduous at best. Second, even clients who had never been taught to read or write were typing grammatically-correct sentences.
Furthermore, demonstrations of the technique featured the client and facilitator both being shown a picture and being asked what it was of. This made it impossible to know if the client or facilitator was typing the answer. So tests were devised where, at first, a question was heard by both client and facilitator through a headset. Each time, a correct answer was entered. Next, the client was asked a question, while music was piped to the facilitator. Under these conditions, the client gave either the wrong answer or no answer every time.
In the second part of the test, clients who had seemingly communicated complex ideas were asked to point to the sky and were unable to do so. Also of note, there were no cases of a client using a word that was not in the facilitator’s regular vocabulary. Similar visual tests, in which the facilitator and client were shown different pictures, resulted in the facilitator typing the image that he or she saw every time. A crucial point in all these tests was that facilitators were always looking at the keyboard, while the client seldom was.
Other than three qualitative-research studies as Syracuse, none of which could be replicated by other researchers, scientific studies have emphatically concluded that the thoughts being typed are the facilitator’s.
Psychologist Daniel Wegner posits that this happens due to the ideomotor effect, which is most commonly associated with the Ouija Board. This describes what happens when a person’s expectation leads to unconscious control of their motor skills.
Most facilitators truly believe they are being helpful, and are apologetic and remorseful when shown the truth. The few who don’t accept the evidence resort to spitting out a variety of ad hoc excuses. For instance, some dismiss dismal test results by arguing the client was nervous or performs poorly in a controlled setting. As to why the facilitator could do it, but not the client’s parent, apologists say the client has formed a working relationship with the facilitator and is unhappy about starting over with someone else.
The glaring flaws of facilitated communication are even more problematic since its training encourages facilitators to fill in the gaps. Consider this advice they are given: “Facilitated communication is never as fast or as fluent as normal speech. Messages tend to be short, even telegraphic, and may omit grammatical bridges. It is not always clear what message the person is trying to get across.”
Trying to guess what the client is thinking has led to disaster, as there have been several instances of false sexual assault allegations, including two fathers who spent months in jail before charges were dropped.
As this became more well known, and with a damning documentary on the PBS program Frontline, Facilitated Communication advocates attempted some fresh spins. Syracuse’s Facilitated Communication Institute became the School of Education’s Institute on Communication and Inclusion. And facilitated communication’s new euphemism is Supported Typing. The goals, from the school’s website, are to “provide emotional encouragement, communication supports (such as monitoring to make sure the person looks at the keyboard) and physical supports to slow and stabilize the person’s movement. The facilitator should never move or lead the person.”
Encouragement and ensuring the person is looking at the keyboard are fine, but physical support from a facilitator remains problematic. And this could managed by resting the client’s arm on an artificial ergonomic support. As long as a facilitator is in contact with the client, the potential exists for manipulation, intentional or otherwise.
There are methods to assist those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate, as Helen Keller and Stephen Hawking have demonstrated. But these are based on science, not wishful thinking and unproven ideas. As negative results piled up, facilitated communicators switched to qualitative research. With this method, clearly-stated goals, objective criteria, and double blind experiments were replaced with opinion and conjecture. For instance, “researchers” may have the client work with four facilitators, then decide that the client demonstrated consistent writing style, and count this as proof. Or they may look at their eyes and conclude that they are glancing in the right direction. These methods avoid the key question of who is controlling what gets typed and fails to, how shall we say, communicate sound science.