Facilitated Communication Under New Scrutiny

By Debra Viadero — November 17, 1993 7 min read
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Typing while an aide supported her hand, Mark Storch’s autistic teenage daughter two years ago spelled out horrendous accusations against her father. In graphic language, she accused him of committing more than 200 vaginal and anal rapes upon her.

The case landed in a New York State family court, where the charges against Mr. Storch, a teacher from Shokan, N.Y., were eventually dismissed.

The controversy, however, has not ended. Now Mr. Storch is planning to bring suit against the Ulster County social-services agency and the facilitator who supported the child-sexual-abuse charges against him.

Mr. Storch contends that facilitated communication--the method by which his daughter made her accusations--has never been proved conclusively to work, and that county officials and others should have known that when they brought charges against him. The lawsuit, which is expected to be filed in the next few weeks, will ask for more than $1 million in damages.

Like a Ouija Board?

The Storch family’s story is among an increasing number of cases nationwide in which nonverbal children, “speaking’’ through a facilitator, have accused a parent or someone else close to them of sexual abuse.

No one knows how many such cases have occurred, since these allegations are typically adjudicated in family courts, where records are sealed. But at least 22 such cases have come to public attention since 1990, according to the Center for Facilitated Communication at Syracuse University, which promotes the technique.

The cases are arising as a growing number of clinical studies are failing to show that the technique works.

The scrutiny is renewing doubts about whether the nonverbal and autistic children who use the technique are expressing their own thoughts or whether, like players in a Ouija-board game, they are communicating the unconscious thoughts of the facilitators who work with them.

“Emotionally, as parents, you want more than anything to believe that facilitated communication is for real, but they haven’t proven anything yet,’' Mr. Storch said.

In the meantime, he has made up his own mind about the technique. “I think it’s a complete sham, 100 percent,’' he said.

Growing Use, Allegations

Used widely in Australia, facilitated communication was imported to this country a few years ago by Douglas Biklen, a professor of special education at Syracuse University. (See Education Week, June 10, 1992.)

On a visit to Australia, Mr. Biklen observed that autistic children and others who had no speech were able to type or to point to letters on a letterboard when a facilitator gently touched or supported them on the hand, elbow, or shoulder.

The practice spread quickly, particularly for children with autism, one symptom of which is a difficulty in understanding and communicating with speech. Parents and educators who used the technique said children were able to tell them things the adults had had no way of knowing previously.

According to the Syracuse center, moreover, a small number of students have learned to type independently.

Along with the rise in the use of the technique have come the abuse allegations. Six of those charges have resulted in convictions or guilty pleas, although most have not held up in court.

One survey showed that 13 percent of students using facilitated communication had made such charges--a level that is not out of line with the percentage of respondents in surveys of the general population who say they have experienced sexual abuse. Even so, the rise in cases prompted the Syracuse center to draw up guidelines this year to help facilitators determine when an accusation is real.

‘This Will Go Away’

Mr. Storch’s case was among the first of the wave of child-sexual-abuse cases to emerge through facilitated communication.

In 1991, his daughter Jenny, who was then 14 and living at a residential school, began to type such messages as, “Daddy f----d me in the ass.’' In response, county social-service officials sought to remove her from her father’s custody and to press charges against him.

Mr. Storch was allowed to see his daughter only under supervision approved by the court.

“I kept thinking, once we explain who we are this will go away,’' he said. “I don’t abuse my own daughter. I don’t abuse anybody.’'

To his dismay, however, county officials continued to press the case even after a physical examination of his daughter showed no signs of abuse. Moreover, Jenny, typing with a different facilitator, also went on to accuse her grandfathers of similar acts. Yet both of them had been dead for years.

Holding facilitated communication to the same strict legal standards as a polygraph test, Family Court Judge Karen Peters decided not to allow Jenny’s facilitated messages as evidence in the trial. All charges against Mr. Storch were dropped in September 1992--ten months after the allegations surfaced.

The entire ordeal, Mr. Storch said, cost him more than $100,000 in legal fees and has strained his 26-year marriage.

“I’m still a nervous wreck whenever I hear anything about facilitated communication,’' he said.

Alan Zwiebel, the lawyer who is representing Mr. Storch and other parents who claim to have been wrongfully accused of child abuse in much the same way, said Mr. Storch’s case was typical. Mr. Zwiebel blames Mr. Biklen and other supporters of facilitated communication for promoting its widespread use without first proving that it works or investigating its consequences.

“If this was a medication for cancer, before we allowed it to be sold, we would check it out,’' Mr. Zwiebel said.

But Mr. Biklen argues that educators and parents experimenting with facilitated communication should postpone scientific tests of its effectiveness.

“What we’ve said is that if you’re teaching them the method, it’s best not to be testing them,’' he said. “You don’t test reading ability two weeks after teaching them to read.’'

Little Evidence Found

Studies by other researchers have so far turned up very little evidence that facilitated communication works.

To date, there have been 38 published studies on the method, according to Bernard Rimland, the director of the Autism Research Institute. Of the 304 nonverbal students participating in the experiments, he said, 11 showed signs of being able to communicate through facilitated communication.

Many of those studies suggest that facilitators may have unwittingly influenced students’ responses. In some of the experiments, for example, students were shown an object and then asked to tell what they had seen.

When the facilitator and the subject saw the same object, the student gave the correct answer. But when the facilitator was shown an object different from the one shown to the subject, the student spelled out what the facilitator had seen.

Arthur Schawlow, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and the father of an autistic man who uses facilitated communication, countered that most of the critical studies were flawed.

“You have to make sure what you’re asking is something the student can give,’' said Mr. Schawlow. “Not everyone can name things, especially under stress.’'

Four as-yet unpublished studies, he continued, produced more positive results by allowing subjects to rehearse their tasks and by barring any distractions to the facilitators, such as showing them different pictures.

Facilitators also must develop a trusting relationship with their subjects, Mr. Biklen added.

Validated by Anecdotes

Some newer studies have begun to address the proponents’ criticisms. Michael Eberlin and his colleagues at the Developmental Disabilities Institute, for example, built in time in their experiment for facilitators to develop relationships with their subjects before the tests. And 10 of the facilitators in the study were already known to the students.

Rather than simply asking the subjects to name things, the researchers also asked students how they felt or about their autism. The facilitators wore headphones that transmitted white noise to prevent them from hearing the questions.

Even so, after 20 hours of training in facilitated communication, none of the 21 students in the study showed unexpected communications skills.

“We were hoping to show, using controlled research, that this was a wonderful thing,’' said Mr. Eberlin, the supervisor of the psychology department at the institute.

“I hope there are some very excellent facilitators out there who know how not to influence and may be able to work successfully with a very small percentage of the population,’' he said. “But I’m not so sure.’'

Mr. Eberlin’s study was one of four critical reports on facilitated communication that were published in the September issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The mounting criticism has prompted Mr. Biklen to design some studies of his own, which have not yet been completed. Until then, supporters of facilitated communication contend they already have all the proof they need.

“I think part of the trouble is that those of us who practice this see anecdotes that don’t impress the statisticians, but are so compelling we don’t need further validation,’' Mr. Schawlow said.

He recalled how his son once came to him to report, correctly, that a sink was overflowing in another room.

“These poor people, if they don’t want them to communicate these things, how in the world are you going to let them live?’' Mr. Schawlow asked.

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1993 edition of Education Week as Facilitated Communication Under New Scrutiny


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