Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Skepticationalism I: Facilitated Communication

Being The Inaugural Edition of the Sunday Skepticationalism Feature:

Ahem. Let's talk about woo-woo. What is woo-woo? I'm glad you asked. Woo-woo is the willing suspension of disbelief that makes the enjoyment of fiction possible--except that woo-woo is applied in real life. Woo-woo treats belief as a virtue in and of itself, and shuns skepticism--and by extension, shuns reason, evidence, and investigation.

Today I want to talk to you about a bit of woo-woo that has invaded the education community, particularly the "special education" community: "Facilitated Communication" or FC. Facilitated communication is a method used to communicate with people with severe Autism, mental retardation, and other disorders that inhibit communication to a severe degree. It promises a way for people so high on the autism spectrum that they don't communicate verbally at all, whether orally or in writing, to talk to their loved ones. Imagine being the parent of a child who has never spoken a word to you and never will, and you begin to understand the desperation of these parents. That's important, because the purveyors of FC understand that desperation very well. They know these people would do anything if they could hear their children say "Hi," much less "I love you, mom." Many of them believe passionately that FC works; in fact, many are parents who took FC "training" so that they could be the FC practicioner for their own kids and help them communicate with the outside world. It's hard to judge them very harshly from the point of view of a man whose children can tell me they love me every day.

If you've ever played with a Ouija board at a birthday party, you already know how FC works. The non-verbal person's hands are placed on a keyboard and held by the FC practicioner. As the NVP moves his hands about, the FC practicioner guides and steadies them, providing just enough feedback and pressure so that the NVP can find the keys he's looking for, which allows the NVP to type his innermost thoughts for everyone to read. It's shocking the sort of poetry, vivid prose, and revealing personal emotional descriptions that can result. One network news report I watched this year reported matter-of-factly the tale of a young girl with severe autism who, aided by her mother through the magic of FC, is able to write amazing accounts of what it's like to be her. One of the experts even stated without irony that the writing skills and even the outlook on life the girl demonstrated in her amazing writings would be more expected from a middle-aged woman, and wasn't it ironic that such a precocious writing talent was trapped inside a girl who would be unable to express it without her mother's Facilitated Communication technique? The far simpler explanation that maybe a middle-aged woman really was writing all this stuff--and that a young girl who has never learned to type is probably not typing out prose from the point of view of a much older woman--either didn't occur to anyone or got left on the cutting-room floor.

That probably sounds more or less harmless. The mother loves her daughter and she wishes they could talk to each other, so she takes up this FC technique. The daughter is not really communicating any more than the spirits of the Ouija board, as her mother's guiding hands are doing just what the users do with Ouija games, divining rods, and all manner of other magical devices--guiding them to give the result the user expects in a phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect. The problem is that it's not harmless. The mother is deceived into accepting her own thoughts as her daughter's. If there's ever a time when the daughter disagrees with the mother about something important, you can bet that a session of FC will show the opposite. And it can go a lot further than that. Take for instance the case recently dismissed against the Wendrow family in Michigan. Their 15-year-old daughter is severely autistic and unable to communicate verbally--or so they thought until they tried Facilitated Communication. Then she began to pour forth words. Hallelujah! Huzzah! Hurray!

Then the words changed. Through her Facilitated Communication specialist, their daughter supposedly accused them of rape. Her father, the FC writings said, had been raping her for nine years while her mother, who knew all about the abuse, did nothing to stop it. Now, this presents a problem if you're the Wendrows. A week ago, you were overjoyed that your daughter had escaped the shell of autism and was learning to communicate with the world. You believed in FC with all your might. Now you have a choice to make, because you know these rapes didn't happen (a fact confirmed by medical examinations of the Wendrows' daughter.) In a move that wouldn't shock a true cynic, the local prosecutors decided that the word of a Facilitated Communication specialist trumped the physical evidence and indicted the Wendrows anyway. It took four grueling months before the charges were finally dismissed, and the Wendrows are still filing lawsuits and trying to get life back on track.

The thing that drives skeptics craziest about Facilitated Communication is how obvious the hoax seems. A short bout of critical thinking would seem sufficient to puncture it fatally:
"So you're saying that you're going to hold my son's hands, and guide them to keys, but he'll be the one typing his ideas? But . . . that sounds like you're the one deciding what to type. And . . . . my son is severely autistic, so he never learned to type. And . . . . as far as anyone knows, autism isn't a stubborn refusal to use words, but a basic difference in how communication is processed in the brain. We know for sure that autism isn't a deficiency in motor skills, so how will steadying someone's hands make any difference?"

If that's not enough, the experiments have been done. It's been proven over and over. If the subject and the specialist see the same picture and are asked to describe it, then it gets described. If the subject is shown one picture and the specialist a different picture, then the only one that ever gets described is the one the specialist saw. They never write about the picture that only the subject saw because the subject is not writing anything. The specialist is simply using the subject's fingers to type.

So why does the myth persist? Well, it's a special kind of woo-woo. Very few people are selling FC for money. Most of the people pitching the idea to parents and therapists are doing it because they believe from the bottoms of their hearts that FC has revolutionized the treatment of all communication disorders. They believe it's a breakthrough. They see themselves as practicing altruism and comforting the afflicted. Most people find it so hard to believe that such earnest, honest do-gooders could be perpetrating a hoax that they never get around to checking for any evidence that what they're doing actually works. The idea that they're being sold a bill of goods by a true believer never occurs to them. We're all wired to detect deception, and even the best con artists can't avoid a tell or two, if you're observant enough to see them. But people who think they're telling the absolute truth don't have tells. They've already deceived themselves, so they have no need to try to deceive you.


Matt G said...

Occam's Razor carves its sensible cut line again:
Is it more reasonable to believe that the practitioner has facilitated a new and heretofore undiscovered form of communication that, if real, has all the signs of para-science? or that the practitioner, whose hands are on the client's hands, is controlling the outcome? Which is simpler, and takes fewer leaps of faith to accomplish?

My cynical side questions whether the practicioners really believe themselves or not, but my logical side agrees with you that probably it's simpler for all concerned for the altogether-recognized phenomenon of Believing Your Own Lie to be at work, here.

Anonymous said...