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Why Facilitated Communication for Special Needs Students Doesn't Work

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.


New Name for a Controversial Technique

The technique, facilitated communication (FC), has been making a comeback, of sorts. Under the new name of “supported typing” this form of alternative communication for non-verbal individuals has received support from the organization Autism Speaks, as well as an unexpected and indirect endorsement from the reputable institution, MIT’s Media Lab.

This is an incredible revelation, considering that FC has been debunked by numerous times. Countless studies made since the 1990s have found no evidence that this technique works.Yet, universities such as MIT and Syracuse University are still teaching and training facilitators to use it.

While this program appears to offer a “miracle” that will open up a world of possibilities for the non-verbal individual with autism, the science behind its effectiveness is simply not there. Parents, educators, and others working with individuals with autism, should be wary of FC.

What is Facilitated Communication?

Controversy surrounds FC. Accusations of fraud and manipulation of the vulnerable have been leveled at its creators and proponents. At the same time, the proponents have called it a breakthrough.

So what exactly is this? For starters, it usually involves two people:

  • Individual with some form of non-verbal dysfunction, and
  • A trained facilitator meant to assist the non-verbal individuals with the help of an electronic keyboard.

The process, which appears simple in function, can be best described in following way:

  • a trained facilitator to assist a non-verbal person to type on an electronic keyboard as a means of communication. The trained facilitator will hold the individual’s hand and arms and help him or her type on the keyboard.
  • A screen on the keyboard that will display the written language supposedly coming from the non-verbal individual.

Many of these individuals have severe forms of autism, cerebral palsy, or intellectual disabilities. In addition, some are in semi-vegetative state, wheelchair bound or have limited use of their motor skills.

Rom Houben - a person who was touted as proof that facilitated communication worked. It was later revealed that Rom and his facilitator couldn't replicate earlier claims of his ability to communicate through facilitated communication.

Rom Houben - a person who was touted as proof that facilitated communication worked. It was later revealed that Rom and his facilitator couldn't replicate earlier claims of his ability to communicate through facilitated communication.

The belief is that these individuals can communicate, but need something like FC to open up their world to others. Also, it appears this belief operates on the notion that these individuals don't have intellectual limitations.

As an example, A popular photograph found on the Internet shows an individual using FC. He appears nearly comatose, eyes closed and mouth-gaped while his limp arm is held over a keyboard by the facilitator. Several reports have described the FC “user” as staring at the sky or ceiling while typing a response.

Proponents believe that FC is a miracle. They believe that it opens these individuals’ lives to new possibilities for living a life similar to the non-disabled populous. However, opponents point out that it’s not so much the individual communicating.

Its Troubled History

FC originated in Australia in 1977. It was conceived by Rosemary Crossley, a teacher at St. Nicholas Hospital. Even then, the practice came under scrutiny by the Health Commission of Victoria. That was until one of her students with cerebral palsy, Anne McDonald, managed to win her release from the hospital in 1979.

Although many questions were raised, McDonald – with the help of Crossley – managed to convince the Supreme Court of Victoria that she was capable of living outside the hospital’s facilities. She – again, with the help of Crossley – would later write a book detailing her ordeal in the hospital.

The case also led to international attention. In particular, individuals in the United States took notice. First, Physicist Arthur Schawlow claimed he used FC on his autistic son with successful results in the early 1980s. Then, a sociologist and professor of special education at Syracuse University, Douglas Biklen, studied it. After investigating Crossley’s procedures in 1989, Biklen returned to Syracuse and created the Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University.

In the early 1990s, FC was heralded as a miracle. According to Biklen, FC was showing results when used with individuals with severe autism. They were accomplishing things such as composing poems, or expressing well-developed opinions on various subjects. To him, it was as if these severely disabled students were unleashing an intellect trapped within them.

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Parents of children with disabilities and educators rejoiced; the media (In particular, the news show, 20/20) called it a triumph; and its creator was hailed as an innovator. It was believed that this process would open a world of opportunity for these individuals. Some even claimed it would change the way the public viewed autistic and non-verbal people.

In the early 1990s, facilitated FC was being heralded as a miracle. According to Biklen, FC was showing results when used with individuals with severe autism

However, not everyone was impressed. Some special educators were perplexed when they saw the students using this technique without looking at the board. Numerous researchers conducted studies on it, discovering that the writing style and vocabulary used by the facilitators matched the supposed messages of the individual they were helping.

Soon, major organizations were finding disparities. According to The Skeptic's Dictionary, reputable organizations started to stack the evidence against FC.

The examples are the following:

  • In 1993, the American of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that FC was not a scientifically valid technique for people with autism or mental retardation (Carroll, 2011).
  • In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association stated that the facilitators were subconsciously putting out the language output rather than the individual with disabilities. And
  • in 1998, the Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan stated it is “incapable of establishing unexpected literacy or producing valid messages above the facilitated individual’s established communicative level (Carroll, 2011).”

Even the media was starting to turn against it. First, PBS’s 1993 Frontline documentary, “Prisoners of Science” exposed the fallacies behind FC. Also, a 60 Minutes segment debunked it.

Possibly the most damaging case against FC came when it was tested in a court of law. In one case, a Michigan father was falsely accused of molesting his 14-year-old autistic daughter. The accusation came from a school aide (the facilitator) who claimed the girl told her by using FC.

Possibly the most egregious moment came in a court of law. FC was put to the test; this time, a man’s life was in the balance. As part of the cross examination the defense attorneys assigned a different facilitator to see if the girl would be able to tell the same story. The story told this time was very different from the original accusation. It was later revealed that the original facilitator had been molested in the past. As a result, the charges were dropped and the case was dismissed.

Similar cases came forth, and the results were the same as the first. All cases were dismissed.

Hoax or Wishful Thinking?

To this day, there are still groups and institutions -- including Biklen and Syracuse University -- that stand behind the potentials of FC. These proponents truly believe there are some benefits that came from this technique.

In part, the intention of those these proponents was not to fool the public. They cared and wanted to help these individuals.

However, intentions cannot compete with reality. And when the proponents hold tightly to FC, they become defensive.

Case in point: when first exploring this issue and writing about it, a person claiming to be a FC facilitator contacted me. He was angry and believed that my views on the matter were misguided. He went further to accuse me of purposely starting a smear campaign for some corporation or "intellectual elites". He never fully explained his reasoning behind this.

He did, however, threatened to contact an FC support group he was part of and have its members inundate my email to protest my stance. Fortunately, that never happened.

And if such thing happens, it shouldn't matter. Parents or educators are the ones that will have to make the decision to trust or reject this technique. And, the likelihood, is that if they are searching for a miracle to improve a non-verbal autistic child’s lives may need to look somewhere else.


Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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