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live and let lie

By Dan Cassino
Arizona Daily Wildcat
May 5, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

If you want to hurt someone, the fastest way is to shatter their illusions, to tell them that the things they most care about are lies. It is a callous, dispassionate and cold-hearted thing to do. Telling someone the truth is easy. Sometimes it is also wrong.

In the early 1970s, Rosemary Crossley, a teacher at St. Nicholas Hospital in Melbourne, Australia reported that she had found a way to communicate with 12 children who were suffering from severe cerebral palsy. Crossley's method, known as facilitated communication, was used worldwide by the mid-1980s.

Crossley's method involved holding the disabled person's hand over a keyboard. The adult holding the child would guide the hand toward the keys that child wished to type. These facilitators recorded enormous successes. Parents, who had never been able to communicate with their children, now got messages saying how much they were loved. It was a dream come true for everyone involved.

Surprisingly, the disabled persons exhibited high levels of literacy. Facilitators, and others friendly to the movement, theorized that they had learned to read, write and spell from watching television, and observing their siblings. In fact, they often showed language skills far surpassing normal children in their age group. The following, for example, was written by a 6-year-old girl:

"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 want people to respect children with autism. we are bright and want to be just like opther kids."

Soon after facilitated communication caught on, mainstream scientists became skeptical. They noted that the children typing were rarely looking at the keyboard, and that this would make it impossible for even a skilled typist to output a coherent message. They attributed the advanced language skills to the influence of the facilitators, rather than the genius of the children. Being scientists, they decided to run quantitative tests to determine the validity of the results reported by facilitators.

Tests had been done previously, of course, but almost exclusively by proponents of facilitated communication, and always on a qualitative basis. These tests looked for similar strains of thought and creative spellings that the child seemed to exhibit with different facilitators.

They found exactly what they wanted to find: Facilitated communication was an absolute success.

Quantitative studies turned out differently. The first objective test was from the O.D. Heck Developmental Center. After three months and several hundred trials, there was not one single correct response. That is, none of the children could communicate anything their facilitator did not know. The study pointed to "overwhelming" evidence of unconscious facilitator influence.

This report was criticized for being mean-spirited and cold-hearted. These scientists were taking the one ray of hope parents of these disabled persons had, and shattering it. Facilitators and proponents of facilitated communication ignored this and all the other quantitative studies. The public took little notice.

Even if it was bogus, it wasn't hurting anyone.

Then, starting in 1989, those that had supported facilitated communication the most, the parents, became victims of it. By 1994, more than 50 cases were pending in which a disabled person revealed parental abuse through facilitated communication. A few were convicted.

This heightened the assault on facilitated communication. Objective studies showing it to be unfounded in all but a few cases seemed to convince the psychological community. The American Psychological Association moved to condemn the practice.

We can now say that for all but a small percentage of disabled persons, facilitated communication does not work. The question is, should we take away the illusions that these parents have? Is it right for us to tell them that they must abandon the practice?

No, to do that would be cruel.

Rather, we should prohibit facilitators from charging money for the practice. The only harm that has come out of facilitated communication is the false allegations about the parents, and we can be fairly sure that the parents will not do this to themselves. These parents, deep down, must know that they are lying to themselves, but they choose to do. We should let them have their illusions. In some cases, it is all they have.