by Ashton Schneider
Facilitated Communication, also known as Supported Typing, is a communication technique that was created to assist severely autistic or other communication impaired individuals in sharing their thoughts, feelings or ideas.¹ Proponents of this technique, which include family members, teachers, and assistants of those with autism, believe that these individuals are not actually mentally disabled but have a rich inner life. They claim severely autistic individuals are cognitively the same as any other typically developed person and that their disability stems from an inability to simply make the physical movements required for communication (e.g: controlled movement of the vocal cords or hands, etc).²
The Facilitated Communication (FC) technique itself is employed by a facilitator who assists the disabled individual, the communicator, in pressing the keys on a keyboard or letter board while giving verbal encouragement. This is done by forming the person’s fingers into a fist with the index finger extended and supporting the elbow, gripping the wrist, sleeve of a shirt, or hand and then guiding the arm forward toward the keyboard. FC became popular in the United States in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was largely promoted by a man named Douglas Biklen, a professor at Syracuse University in New York, who learned the technique while in Australia from Rosemary Crossley.³ It is mostly used with individuals on the more severe end of the autistic spectrum who are characterized by profound difficulties with communication, social skills, and in entertaining abstract concepts. Many of these people also have repetitive, jerky movements or an intellectual disability.⁴ The current understanding of autism is precisely why this belief is such an extraordinary one; if we are to believe that Facilitated Communication does what Biklen claims it does, then we would need to completely change how we define autism. (For additional information about FC and the controversy surrounding it I have provided links below.)
Evidence supporting FC is of the anecdotal variety. Demonstrations of the technique have shown what appears to be the communicators typing out full, intelligible sentences. They could carry on conversations with those speaking to them, answer questions, and tell of how they had felt trapped for so long before FC was available to them. Their statements also seemed to make sense coming from someone with a disability who has not been able to communicate up until now.²
Some criticisms can be made after simply observing a few demonstrations of FC in action. For starters, in a few instances the disabled individual isn’t even looking at the letter board or keyboard, and this may continue for the majority of the time in which they are supposedly communicating. Secondly, in other demonstrations it appears as though the facilitator assisting the communicator is doing quite a bit of assisting. So much so, that it looks as if the facilitator is doing more than just guiding the hand or arm and is actually just using the communicators hand to type.² The most damning evidence, however, comes in the form of a series of experiments conducted to test just who is doing the communicating. One in particular, done by Smith, Haas, and Belcher (1994), consisted of presenting either matching or differing pictures, objects or messages to the facilitator and communicator. Communicators were told to describe what they had seen through the use of varying levels of FC (no help, hand over hand support with error prevention, and hand over hand support without error prevention). Correct answers were obtained only when both the facilitator and communicator saw the same image and a full support style of FC was used. ⁵,⁷
When it comes to FC, several cognitive mechanisms and social factors are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the belief. For starters, confirmation bias, where a person bends ambiguous data to fit what they already believe, plays a heavy role in turning observations of the technique being performed into “hard evidence” that these individuals must be the ones communicating. Secondly, avid supporters make use of post hoc excuses to explain away why some people cannot get FC to work, or why certain experiments fail to find any evidence in support of the technique.² This works to insulate the claim from being testable in the future because it makes it unfalsifiable. Thirdly, and especially in the case of Biklen himself, cognitive dissonance plays a role. He has put a lot of time and effort into promoting this technique, as well as put his reputation on the line and as such is unlikely to admit that it is a pseudoscience despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting exactly this. Additionally, Biklen, who first brought FC to the United States, has a PhD and because of this is able to influence others beliefs because he occupies a position of authority.⁶ Socially, believers in FC come from a community of people who have loved ones with autism or who work with them closely. It’s no surprise then, that these individuals would want to very much believe in FCs credibility as it provides them with the opportunity to communicate with loved ones who previously were unable to do so. Being surrounded by staunch believers enhances a person’s motivation to believe, as well.
In conclusion, advocates of Facilitated Communication have made some pretty extraordinary claims; and while it’s entirely understandable how a person can come to believe in the extraordinary, the evidence doesn’t always warrant the strength of the belief. Claims that revolutionize everything that we know about a concept require much more than anecdotes, authority, and a large number of very convinced believers to make them truly persuasive to a rightfully skeptical audience. It may provide us a great deal of comfort or joy to believe in an idea but if this is based on a lie or a misconception, it could prove to be much more damaging than the truth itself in the long run.
1) Syracuse University website: http://soe.syr.edu/centers_institutes/institute_communication_inclusion/what_is_supporte d_typing/default.aspx
2) FRONTLINE: Prisoners of Silence video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzCGux7qD1c
3) American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website: https://www.asha.org/policy/tr1994-00139.htm
4) Autism speaks.org: https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2012/01/09/all-children-deserve-access-communi cation
5) Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M.(Eds).(2015). Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.(2nd ed.)New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
6) Syracuse University Page on Douglas Biklen: http://soe.syr.edu/about/member.aspx?fac=15
7) Smith, M., Haas, P.J., & Belcher, R.G. (1994). Facilitated communication: The effects of facilitator knowledge and level of assistance on output. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(3), 357-367. Retrieved from: http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1 &sid=e49158f8-7254-4ea4-9fed-7eeed5135968%40sessionmgr4009
8) Special thanks to Dr. Michael Vasey for discussions in class regarding FC: https://psychology.osu.edu/people/vasey.1