5X5 Episode 111

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5X5 Episode 111
Facilitated Communication
25 April 2012

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5X5 110 5X5 112
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Facilitated Communication[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about facilitated communication. This is a technique in which a facilitator physically helps a client to communicate. Either by holding their arm while they point at letters on a letter board or type on a keyboard, or perhaps point to pictures on a picture board. This technique has actually been quite controversial since its inception in the late 1970s in Australia, when Rosemary Crossley, a teacher at St. Nicholas Hospital, used this technique to communicate with children who were diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The technique was later introduced in the United States, mainly through Syracuse University and a practitioner, Douglas Biklen. And here is where the use of the technique became very problematic, because Biklen claimed that he was able to use this technique in order to communicate with children who had cognitive impairment and were uncommunicative or nonverbal, such as for example severely autistic children. The controversy stems from the question of whether or not the client or the child is the actual author of the communication or if it's the facilitator themselves. The technique became extremely popular among speech and language therapists and was widely used until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when scientific research demonstrated that, in most cases, the facilitator is the one doing the actual communication, not the client.

R: So, it's important to differentiate between facilitated communication that we're going to be talking about on this show, and facilitators who aid people in communicating, people who have severe physical limitations, but who are not necessarily severely cognitively impaired, that can be people with ALS, cerebral palsy, locked-in syndrome, things like that. These people are perfectly intelligent, however are unable to communicate their thoughts due to their physical limitations, and often times they will require assistance to aid in their communication. There's a huge difference though between the people who are helping the physically impaired and those who are claiming to help those who are cognitively impaired.

B: Few would argue that the most likely explanation for facilitated communication is either outright fraud or the ideomotor effect. The ideomotor effect is the psychological phenomenon in which motor actions unconsciously follow one's expectations. Your body then can make non-reflexive movements without your explicit awareness that you're actually directing those movements. Many apparent paranormal phenomena are in fact the result of this effect, the most iconic of course being ouija boards and dowsing. With facilitated communication then, when a facilitator is supporting the hand or arm of the person they're trying to help communicate, they're unconsciously moving the hand to the desired locations. This does not mean that the ideomotor effect or conscious deception explains away all of facilitated communication, it only means that there are other, more realistic and mundane explanations for the claims of facilitated communication proponents, and that these possibilities need to be accounted for in any experimental design so that they can be ruled out. If they're not accounted for, then any experimental results are essentially worthless. In fact, once experiments testing facilitated communication are properly controlled for in this way, it invariably turns out that the facilitator all along was the author of the words, and no-one else.

S: Yeah, it's actually easy, if you properly design the study, to tell who is communicating. You simply give information only to the client, and then you ask a question of the client and see if the facilitator can produce that information. Also, there are many cases in which just observing the process of performing the facilitated communication makes it obvious who is doing the communicating. For example, in some cases, the client was not even looking at the keyboard or the letter board, and was apparently typing with one finger. That is simply an impossibility, nobody can single-finger type on a keyboard accurately. And yet the facilitator was intently looking at the keyboard, because, as you said, Bob, they were subconsciously, or unconsciously, directing their client's hand to the letters, and the communication was subconscious, rather than from their client.

E: Steve, you spoke earlier about the Australia case, but the United States has also seen its fair share of these cases as well that have gone through the court system. In 1992, the first court decisions in the United States involving allegations of sexual abuse, purportedly made via facilitated communication, did take place. Two New York judges made independent rulings that allegations made by facilitated communication could not be considered as evidence, because the validity of facilitated communication had not been established. In the first case, which was in Ulster County, there was a 16-year old autistic girl with no speech, and had allegedly accused her father – and her grandfathers – of sexual molestation, using facilitated communication, and both parents faced criminal charges. The father for the molestation, and the mother, for not reporting the father, and the case was before the court for over 10 months. Now, there was a slight problem with this case, in that the grandfathers had been dead many years, and the facilitator never bothered to ask about them. And there was otherwise no other physical evidence – or any kind of evidence – to support the allegations, so the judge threw it out, and basically said that the facilitated communicator lacked the credibility required to press any charges against the accused. One day later, there was another decision that came down, this time in Onondaga County, in which there was a 10-year-old Down syndrome girl said to have used facilitated communication to accuse her father of sexual molestation. And although this girl had some capacity to speak, the allegations were purportedly made only through the facilitator, and never through speech. The father was forced to move out of the family home, and faced a jail sentence if the allegations were found to be true. But again, there was no physical evidence of abuse, and the case was struck down.

S: Unfortunately, those are not isolated incidents, and despite the fact that facilitated communication has been utterly discredited scientifically, it is still in vogue – even to this day – for courtroom testimony.

J: And unfortunately, Steve, like so many other forms of pseudoscience, the web is a breeding ground for this kind of stuff, and it's alive and well there. I've found Universities that teach it, I've found many, many books about it, or teaching how to do it, forums, blogs, and of course websites. And like so many sources of information we find on the web, the problem is: trying to figure out what information is trustworthy, and what information is either made up, or is following the idea of facilitated communication with people who really aren't there.

S: Yeah, I mean facilitated communication really is a cruel hoax, even though it may be an inadvertent one. The facilitator is just as deceived as those that they are apparently communicating with. But, as with many things like this, science has given us the answer. You simply control for variables, and we can clearly demonstrate where the information is coming from. And in most cases, it's the facilitator. Also, many claims based upon facilitated communication are simply too extraordinary to believe. Proponents would have you believe that children who give every indication of being severely cognitively impaired, were not only of normal intelligence, but were able to learn how to read, sometimes many years ahead of their grade level, without ever actually being taught to read, they just absorbed it from their environment, and they went from never communicating, to communicating in very eloquent prose. Again, really defying common sense, although unfortunately fulfilling the desires of the therapists, and the parents, in many cases. So really there are many victims from facilitated communication. And it is shocking to me that, despite the fact that it's been so scientifically discredited, that it still persists, although it has been marginalized. It really is a shame that it has not been completely eradicated. And modern proponents really have no excuse, such as Syracuse University, that continues to promote it. They really have no excuse. The scientific data is absolutely there, and it is stubbornly clinging to pseudoscience that keeps it alive today.


S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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