Correction: A previous version of this blog inaccurately suggested faculty in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department at Syracuse University promoted facilitated communication. The Institute of Communication and Inclusion is housed in the School of Education at Syracuse and is not associated with the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department.
In the early 1990s, professionals who served children with autism and other developmental disabilities were swept up by a breakthrough method known as facilitated communication (FC). The method included a “facilitator” who provided physical support at the finger, hand, wrist and/or arm of a child who was believed to be typing his or her thoughts. The method allegedly “unlocked” these children from the prison of an unresponsive body to reveal average and sometimes superior intelligence, advanced literacy skills and profound insight about their experiences.
Although no validating evidence was available, popular media latched onto the story and FC fervently spread throughout the country. When researchers investigated claims made about FC, they discovered facilitators subconsciously authoring the messages and concluded FC was fake. For the most part, FC was widely dismissed by the professional communities and became a history lesson on the dangers of credulity, pseudoscience and the importance of evidence-based treatment.
However, beliefs about FC’s demise are premature.
Facilitated communication remains at the fringes of special education and related professions. The primary advocacy has come from faculty affiliated with the Institute of Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University. A confluence of recent events reinvigorated the method, which is increasingly touted as “a form of augmentative and alternative communication.” Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that the client isn’t totally controlling the message, the method recently underwent a strategic rebranding and is now called “supported typing” or “rapid prompting method.”
Several indicators suggest FC is not just poised for a comeback, but that it’s already begun. A number of credible organizations lend FC unwarranted legitimacy, including the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability/Center Excellence in Disability, University of Northern Iowa, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Vermont Department of Disabilities.
Supporters in academia publish articles in peer-reviewed journals that portray FC in positive light, albeit without demonstrations of its efficacy. Indeed, the method is regaining popularity and school districts are beginning to adopt it for their students with autism.
Facilitated communication—known for being the quintessential pseudoscientific fad in developmental disabilities—is infamous for the number of unsubstantiated charges of sexual abuse made by users. In late 2014, the Wendrow family, whose story was featured on 20/20, was awarded nearly $7 million for wrongful prosecution after sexual abuse allegations were made via FC. Former Rutgers University Philosophy Department Chair and leading FC proponent Anna Stubblefield, who claimed any criticism about FC constituted hate speech, was recently charged with multiple accounts of aggravated sexual assault after she allegedly acted as a facilitator to obtain consent for sex from a man with a severe disability and communication impairment. Stubblefield pleaded not guilty and her trial is set for August 2015.
The method also appears to have played a role in the murder of a child with autism. In November 2014, wealthy businesswoman Gigi Jordan was convicted of murdering her 8-year-old son. Jordan’s defense centered on her claim that she committed a mercy killing after her son allegedly requested via FC they both commit suicide.
Professionals responsible for teaching communication skills to children, youth and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities should take stock when examining claims of hidden communication skills, sudden breakthroughs and inspiring anecdotes that are incongruous with generally accepted research. Evidence-based interventions and treatments do exist to support acquisition of communication and other skills for these learners, though progress often is painstakingly slow. FC and its variants remain illegitimate and ultimately usurp the voices of individuals with communication impairments.
If those teaching individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities to communicate adhere to evidence-based approaches, they better serve their clients, prevent harm, and halt the proliferation of pseudoscience in autism.
Editor’s Note: Jason Travers will be speaking at the upcoming Schools Conference in Phoenix, July 10-12. His presentation, Get the Message? The Communicative Nature of Inappropriate Behavior in Learners With ASD, will also be featured at Convention in October. See the full schedule for Schools, which is co-located with the Health Care & Business Institute.
Jason C. Travers, PhD, is an assistant professor of special education at the University of or Kansas. He earned his PhD at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while working as a special educator of students with autism in the nation’s fifth-largest school district. He investigates the racial disparity in the administrative prevalence of autism as well as the efficacy of technology for preventing inappropriate behavior while supporting academic, social and communication skills of students with autism. A board-certified behavior analyst, he teaches graduate courses in applied behavior analysis, evidence-based instructional strategies for learners with autism, and issues in special education. email@example.com