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Facilitated Communication


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Topics in this section:

bulletIndicators that FC is sometimes invalid
bulletProof that FC is sometimes valid
bulletTypes of FC validation studies

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Indicators that Facilitated Communication is sometimes invalid

bulletFocusing on the Keyboard: There is one condition in which it is obvious to even an untrained observer that the person with autism is not doing the communicating. This is when they are staring at the ceiling or directly away from the keyboard. We tried a simple test to prove that a person (even one with normal communication skills) cannot type meaningful messages with one finger unless they are looking at the keyboard. The test is simple to perform and only takes a few minutes.

R.T. Carroll sums this up neatly:

"FC clients routinely use a flat board or keyboard, over which their pointing finger is held by the facilitator. Even the most expert typist could not routinely hit correct letters without some reference as a starting point. (Try looking away from your keyboard and typing a sentence using just one finger held in the air above the keyboard.) Facilitators routinely look at the keyboard; clients do not. The messages' basic coherence indicate they must be produced by someone who is looking at the keyboard. The conclusion seems inevitable." 1 

bullet Age-Inappropriate Language Skills: Some messages typed during a FC session would exhibit advanced writing skills, even if they were typed by a child of the same age with normal communication ability. For example, the following paragraph was typed by a 6 year old girl with an adult facilitator:

"i am really the only child in my class who uses a typewriter.   i feel very proud of my typing.  i will be a writer when i am 25 years old    i x [sic] want people to respect children with autism.  we are bright and want to be just like opther [sic] kids."

If the child is sufficiently young and the text  sufficiently mature in content and structure, then one can infer that the message came from the facilitator and not from the user.

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Proof that Facilitated Communication is Sometimes Valid

One goal in FC is for the facilitator to gradually withdraw support from the user. This is called "fading." At first, the facilitator will usually support the user's finger and palm. Then support is withdrawn to the wrist, then to the forearm, elbow, shoulder and perhaps just holding on to a thread from the user's sweater, or placing a hand on the shoulder. The end point is to have the user typing independently. As support is withdrawn, the likelihood that the facilitator is influencing the user gradually diminishes. We have not been able to find any studies which predict what percentage of persons diagnosed with autism will eventually be able to type on their own without facilitation. D. Bicklen refers to "several students typing completely independently; of these, all had been facilitating for more than three years." 2

A very small percentage of persons with autism have finished High School; a few and have attended and graduated from college or university.

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Types of Facilitated Communication Studies

Studies of FC have tended to fall into two categories: 

Studies by DEAL, FCI and other promoters of FC:

These have involved "qualitative or ethnographic methodologies" of the types used by anthropologists and educators. They avoid confrontational study techniques that might undermine the user's self-confidence. Most such studies appear to demonstrate the validity of FC.

The proponents of FC typically argue that quantitative, objective testing "would undermine the confidence of the communicator, place undue pressure on him/her, and introduce negativism that would destroy the communicative exchange." 3

Doug Biklen is one of the main critics of objective validation. He notes that many autistic "individuals have extreme word finding problems - they come out with a wrong or related word rather than the correct word when asked a question." Also, they will often produce the correct answer only after a second or third try. 4 He prefers qualitative studies. For example:

bulletRecording when one user exhibits with a number of facilitators:
bulletthe same patterns of "creative and phonetic spellings."  
bulletrepeated choice of vocabulary, favorite phrases, favorite topics.
bulletthe same personality coming through their writing.
bulletRecording instances when the user typed about situations that were unknown to the facilitator.
bulletKeeping a portfolio for each user, which is updated with events that confirm that FC is working. Chris Kliewer of the Facilitated Communication Institute comments: "From conversations with teachers, we concluded that individual authorship could be identified through portfolios of students' typing and through examination of their speech and of their physical style of pointing." He gives a guide to the contents of such portfolios. 5

Studies by skeptics and impartial investigators:

These have tended to be objective and quantitative in nature. They use independent observers to evaluate the text produced. They generally use "facilitator/FC user dyads who had been working together for a considerable period." 6 The tests involve familiar, ordinary tasks, such as "discussing everyday events, naming or describing familiar pictures and objects." Often they are done "in the context of typical FC sessions" at the user's school or institution.

Results have regularly shown that the technique has little or no usefulness. "FC is neither reliably replicable nor valid when produced." 7 Facilitator influence over the user is consistently proven. Rarely, the user was proven to initiate valid answers independently of the facilitator's knowledge; these appear to be by users who have previously demonstrated the ability to read or speak some words.

The first published objective test of FC was performed at the O.D. Heck Developmental Center. Their staff had been polarized into what they termed "believers" and "non-believers." 8,9 After hundreds of trials spanning three months, involving "12 students and 9 facilitators, there was not one single correct response. There was overwhelming evidence of facilitator influence, albeit unconscious." This result was devastating to many of the staff who had embraced FC. Some of them conducted small studies privately in an attempt to disprove the large trial. All failed.

"Gina Green, Director of Research for the New England Center for Autism and Associate Scientist for the E.K. Shriver Center for Mental Retardation, Inc., has reviewed over 150 cases where empirical testing was performed and cites 15 independent conduct evaluations involving 136 individuals with autism and/or mental retardation who were alleged to have been taught to communicate via facilitated communication. In none of the cases were investigators able to confirm facilitated communication by the 136 individuals." 10

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  1. R.T. Carroll, "Facilitated Communication (FC)," at:  http://dcn.davis.ca.us/~btcarrol/skeptic/facilcom.html
  2. D. Bicklen, "Communications Unbound," Teacher's College Press, New York, NY (1993)
  3. "Facilitated Communication," by the Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled, at: http://www.cqc.state.ny.us/fchot.htm
  4. Douglas Biklen, "Questions and Answers on Facilitated Communication," The Advocate 1992-SUMMER.
  5. Chris Kliewer, "The Communication Portfolio," Facilitated Communication Digest  1993-NOV, Vol. 2 No. 1
  6. Gina Green, "Facilitated Communication: Mental Miracle or Sleight of Hand?" Skeptic Vol. 2, Nbr. 3, 1994, Pages 68 to 76.
  7. J.W. Jacobson, et al., "A History of Facilitated Communication: Science, Pseudoscience, and Antiscience," American Psychologist, (1995), Vol. 50, No. 9, Pages 750-765. The paper is available at: http://www.apa.org/journals/jacobson.html
  8. "Facilitated Communication," by the Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled, at: http://www.cqc.state.ny.us/fchot.htm
  9. D.L. Wheeler, et al., "An Experimental Assessment of Facilitated Communication," Mental Retardation 31 (1993), Pages 49-60
  10. Natalie Russo, "Facilitated Communication," by the Commission on Quality of Care..., at: http://www.cqc.state.ny.us/fcnatal.htm

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Copyright © 1998 to 2100 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-DEC-6
Author: B.A. Robinson

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