I’m not going to stomp on any parent of a child with autism seeking out therapies to try to improve their child’s quality of life and long term prognosis. Robin and I are right there with you. But how many more devoted parents of autistic children are going to have their lives ruined because of the unjustified belief in “Facilitated Communication”?
This story is typical of several that have come out over the past few years. An autistic girl “says” through her facilitator that her father is sexually abusing her. CPS is notified by well-meaning school administrators, and the parents’ lives are systematically destroyed. The father is jailed, their autistic children are taken away and placed in foster care. Jobs are lost, reputations are destroyed. And in the end, when someone actually thinks to perform an actual scientific test to determine whether Facilitated Communication is reliable enough to let the girl testify at trial, the results are pure gibberish:
On Jan. 28 and 29, 2008, Judge Marc Barron held a hearing to determine the accuracy of facilitated communication so that it could be used when Aislinn testified in the coming hearings and her father’s trial. Barron ordered that Scarsella leave the room when Aislinn was asked a question. After the question had been posed, Scarsella could return and facilitate Aislinn’s answer on the keyboard.“Do you have a brother or a sister?” Aislinn was asked.
“3FE65,” she answered.
Could she clarify that answer?
“What color is your sweater?”
Belief is a stubborn thing. There were plenty of signs that Aislinn’s supposed accusations against her father were never valid. In early interviews with police she was unable to name her dog or her grandmother, facts Scarsella didn’t know.
With Aislinn’s FC being the only evidence that abuse had occurred, the charges were dropped. On Feb. 22, 2008, after 80 days in jail, Julian Wendrow was released.
The police said they still feared for the children.
The police said they still feared for the children.
The police said they still feared for the children, yet there was no reliable evidence whatsoever that these accusations had even a shred of truth to them.
Of course this is a sad story. It’s all too easy to put myself in the position of the father here. I have an autistic daughter, whose verbal communication is very limited. Should the school district decide that FC was something to try with Katherine, and some facilitator with an axe to grind decided to make up allegations, I could be lying sprawled out on a urine-covered concrete jail floor just like this man was. Just like that.
But the real tragedy isn’t that this situation happened. At least the truth came out, the father is released, and that family can start to work on dealing with the added burdens our wardens of society just heaped on their heads.
No, the real tragedy is that people still buy that FC works for communication with autistic children. Despite the fact that in simple, blind trials FC has never been shown to work worth a damn, people still believe in it. These tests are completely simple, folks. Just like tests disproving ESP, just like they demonstrated above, all you need to do is to ensure the facilitator doesn’t have the knowledge that the autistic person does. If they don’t know it, they can’t make something up, whether it’s consciously or via some sort of unconscious Ouija board effect.
Take the facilitator out of the room. Show something to the subject. Bring them back in and ask them to facilitate a description of the object. That’s all it takes! If the questions are answered correctly, maybe there’s something to it. But they aren’t ever answered correctly with autistic children in properly controlled circumstances. The fact that a man was jailed and arraigned for raping his daughter on the basis of a communication modality that can’t pass this simple test is absolutely insane!
Famed debunker James Randi discusses FC here, specifically referring to the recent claims that a man that was paralyzed in a coma for 23 years was actually conscious the whole time. He includes links pointing out the fraud, but I think my favorite quote from the article is this (emphasis mine):
My tests of autistic children at the University of Wisconsin-Madison clearly showed that FC was simply a tragic farce. My findings were totally ignored. The full account of this matter will be discussed in detail in my next book, A Magician in the Laboratory.
They invited him in to investigate the validity of using FC with autistic children, but when his results didn’t support the theories, they ignored him.
Wegner, Fuller, and Sparrow published a very interesting article tying FC to the “Clever Hans” effect, with a thorough (and damning) survey of scientific test results to date (the article was written in 2001):
The bright hope for FC was soon dimmed by research showing
that many facilitated responses originate with the facilitators themselves
(Felce, 1994; Jacobson, Mulick, & Schwartz, 1995). One
telling study delivered separate questions through headphones to
facilitators and clients, and the resulting answers were found to
match the questions given to the facilitators, not the clients
(Wheeler, Jacobson, Paglieri, & Schwartz, 1993). It turned out that
FC could not uncover facts unknown to the facilitator (Cabay,
1994; Siegel, 1995; Simpson & Myles, 1995). When clients were
given messages or shown objects with their facilitators absent, they
were not able to describe these items in subsequent FC (Crewes et
al., 1995; Hirshoren & Gregory, 1995; Klewe, 1993; Montee,
Miltenberger, & Wittrock, 1995; Regal, Rooney, & Wandas, 1994;
Szempruch & Jacobson, 1993). Although some proponents of FC
attest to its effectiveness even in the face of such evidence (e.g.,
Biklen & Cardinal, 1997), the overwhelming weight of research
indicates that FC consists largely of communication from the
facilitator (Twachtman-Cullen, 1998).
I don’t believe the facilitator in the case I described above acted with conscious malice. I’m sure something was “facilitated” in the normal course of the daughter’s education that looked incriminating, and the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” effect took off from there. Certainly the police still smell that smoke, even after it was proven there wasn’t any smoke in the first place. It’s simply inexcusable that law enforcement personnel would accept what is effectively hearsay evidence without any determination as to the reliability of this communication.
People’s lives are in the balance, folks — people that already carry a heavier burden of duty and responsibility than you likely know. Don’t let institutional stupidity and wishful thinking — heck, almost every cognitive fallacy in this list, really — drive these parents even further into the dirt.