“Typographical error” (Facilitated Communication)


Despite Germ Theory, homeopathy still has a market. Despite the geologic column and Lucy, Louisiana public high schools still try to sneak creationism into biology class. So I am a little jaded to report that another completely discredited notion has been resurrected. Facilitated Communication has rebounded from what should have been a fatal blow.

Twenty years ago, it was presented as a major breakthrough that allowed severely autistic persons to communicate through a conduit. Armed with only a keyboard and facilitator who held their hand or elbow, the previously uncommunicative could type words, sentences, even books.

The joy turned to horror when some also typed out allegations of sexual abuse against their father or other persons. This led to testing to determine if Facilitated Communication was valid. Communicators and facilitators were sometimes shown the same object and sometimes shown different objects. The correct answers were typed only when both were seeing the same picture. In the thousands of attempts where a different picture was shown to each, the facilitator typed what he or she saw 100 percent of the time. The seeming watershed breakthrough had really been the ideomotor effect in action, a voguish Ouija Board.

Instead of acknowledging the truth, the science, and apologizing to the falsely accused, some Facilitated Communication proponents repackaged and remarketed the concept. The primary weasel is Douglas Biklen of Syracuse University, which houses a Facilitated Communication institute. After the FC debacle, it now goes by the euphemism “Institute on Communication and Inclusion.” At least one other U.S. school, the University of New Hampshire, champions FC through its Institute of Disability.

In an attempt to stay one step ahead of the skeptics, the term keeps changing, from “supported typing” to “rapid prompting” to “informative pointing” to the most nebulous moniker, “progressive kinesthetic feedback.” But this linguistic lipstick still gets slapped on the same pseudoscience pig.

When things were going well 20 years ago, Biklen supported scientific research into FC. But now he has taken a page from the creationist and naturopathy playbooks. He bypasses peer review to take his message straight to those most yearning to hear it, the parents of severely autistic children. Double blind studies have been replaced by interviews with sympathetic journalists. There have been a series of books, movies, and TV features testifying to the power of FC, all omitting its .000 batting average in controlled studies.

Despite its dismal record, Facilitated Communication is receiving positive reviews, including 15 mentions in peer-reviewed publications. This includes a work by Anna Stubblefield in Disabilities Studies Quarterly. There are none of the stodgy statistics or vernacular usually associated with this type of publication. Rather, Stubblefield labels opposition to Facilitated Communication a form of hate speech in a ramble that more resembles a Facebook post than a scholarly journal entry. Other childish ad hominem tossed at FC critics by proponents included narrow-minded, evil, and jealous.

FC is once again at the center of a sexual assault allegation, with a key difference this time. Stubblefield is accused of sexually assaulting a cerebral palsy victim whom she acted as facilitator for. Her defense is that he typed his consent.

Besides a media campaign and circumventing peer review, another tactic is to play the dignity card and insist we should presume competence on the part of the autistic. But presuming it is different from making it happen for them. We don’t lead the blind by the hand and announce this as proof of sight.

FC also bolsters its position by using qualitative research, which leans heavily on narrative accounts and case studies, and fails to include control groups and randomness. Quantitative research, by contrast, uses controls and numerical data.

Since people will always get sick, there will always be some who gobble a homeopathic pill, with its allure of a quick, complete, painless fix. It seems too, that FC will survive as long as unscrupulous promoters are able to present their case to desperate parents.


One thought on ““Typographical error” (Facilitated Communication)

  1. Very nice. Sorry I missed this when it came out.

    Stubblefield has now been convicted of rape. The defense was successful in getting the victim characterized as having cerebral palsy rather than CP with very severe cognitive impairments, which has led to some pockets of sympathy for Stubblefield. Basically, there is an alternative theory around that the trial is denying a cognitively capable but physically disabled man the right to choose a sexual partner. The reality is that the man does not speak and his brain is so damaged that he does not really even have conventionally infantile cognitive capacity.

    I appreciate your characterization of Stubblefield’s article as about as scholarly as a Facebook post. I think it’s not even that. The article actually came up in the trial, with me as the final witness. I characterized it as an extended piece of hate mail too long, unfortunately, to post on my office door to amuse my colleagues. For Stubblefield, accurately pointing out that Sue Rubin has never been shown to type independently despite all the claims is “hate speech.” Outing her conflict of interest arranging for her mother to teach a course in FC and related topics at Rutgers-Newark was “slander.”

    It did not help Stubblefield in the trial that she deliberately misrepresented size of the literature against FC, reporting it to be about 1/4 as large as it really is, even after citing articles that revealed its size. One central element of the prosecution was Stubblefield’s dishonesty, which I was able to show extended into her academic work. The incredible incompetence of the pro-FC literature was also part of the testimony. These “studies” are so incredibly bad that their faults can be successfully explained in brief sentences to a tired jury at the end of a long trial. When one element of the defense strategy is the possible validity of FC, it doesn’t help that its proponents can be so easily discredited by proxy.

    The verdict only took an hour or so.

    Of course, it will not surprise you to learn that the editor of Disabilities Studies Quarterly summarily refused to consider responses by me and the others attacked in Stubblefield’s article. This is how the FC people roll. We should also not forget about the companion piece in the same issue forged by Stubblefield in her victim’s name.

    The Society for Disabilities Studies, which includes officers who are not only strong advocates of FC, but who have written approvingly of using FC to generate consent for sex, still can’t figure out whether to retract these items, Stubblefield’s erroneous attack piece that the supposedly facilitated companion. I dunno. Maybe the items should remain so we can always be reminded of what kind of journal Disabilities Studies Quarterly really is.

    James T. Todd, Ph.D
    Eastern Michigan University

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