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Facilitated communication is a method for a helper, or facilitator, to assist a person with both motor difficulties and an inability to speak to communicate by helping the disabled person type responses to questions by feeling subtle movements and gestures the disabled person is trying to make, but cannot perform independantly due to the disability.

If this sounds a bit like using a Ouija board to you, you're not alone.

Facilitated communication caused a big sensation in the 1980s and 90s helping severely autistic people communicate, demonstrating surprising literacy and intelligence compared to all other outward signs of the person's ability. It was claimed at the time that these otherwise bright and aware people were trapped in their bodies, unable to overcome their physical limitations to let the true, fully capable person inside show through. Only because they could not communicate verbally, and had severe motor function problems, they could neither talk nor type nor use sign language, leaving them unable to let the outside world know what was going on inside their heads

People were more than willing to believe that this was the case. It was unequivocally what any relative or loved one wants to hear, that a person who can understand you and relate to you was there all along and this new procedure is capable of lighting a candle in the darkness that they were suffering through, and to all outside evidence it appeared to be genuine. The facilitators themselves undoubtedly believed what they were doing was legitimate.

Unfortunately, what started out as a largely harmless case of self-deception on the part of everyone involved eventually turned sinister. Facilitated communicators began leveling accusations of physical and sexual abuse on people around them, sometimes parents (and sometimes grandparents who had been dead for years before the alleged abuse occurred). Court battles were fought, sometimes with entire cases hinging entirely on the testimony of a non-communicative person. Suddenly it became vitally important that facilitated communication techniques be validated or debunked.

Testing

Many people noticed that the disabled person involved would often not even be looking at the keyboard when answering, sometimes staring off into the distance or even at the ceiling. A barrage of scientific tests were leveled against facilitators in the early 90s to try to verify the accuracy of their abilities. Was this a case of self-deception involving the ideomotor effect influenced by the facilitator's own expectations? Or was the developmentally disabled person really communicating with the facilitator's help? The only way to find out for certain would be to limit the facilitator's access to information the disabled person would have.

A typical test would involve a screen placed between the disabled person and the facilitator. The disabled person would be shown a picture. In some tests, the facilitator was shown the same picture, in others, no picture at all, and in a third type, a different picture. When the disabled person was asked to describe the picture, the results universally and unambiguously matched the information that the facilitator had, being right in the first case, random in the second, and matching the false image in the third.

Skeptics felt justified, believers rejected the studies, claiming that the testing procedure must have interrupted the trust and comfort of the disabled person and altered the results. Regardless, the public largely lost interest in facilitated communication and things mostly went back to normal for the mentally disabled.

Unfortunately, however, this wasn't the end of the story. Facilitated communication continues to attract believers, both among facilitators who believe that they are doing a genuine service for families of the disabled and also the families themselves, who are desperate to believe that their loved ones are capable of some kind of normal interaction with them.

Recent news

Most recently, Belgian car accident victim Rom Houben, who has been in a coma for 23 years, has been reported to be using this method to communicate with the outside world. Unable to independently move any part of his body, except possibly a toe, he is now apparently using facilitator Linda Wouters to report his experience with a touchscreen keyboard. Skeptics say that it remains to be shown whether or not the facilitator is actually doing all the communication, as no controlled trials have been conducted to verify whether or not he can report information that his facilitator does not have.

Update: the skeptics' concerns have been justified. A blinded test, in which Mr. Houben was shown objects and then asked to describe them, has revealed that he is not communicating through his facilitator. Mr. Houben was not able to describe objects hidden from his facilitator.

http://www.skepdic.com/facilcom.html
http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jaba/articles/1995/montee-full.html
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article6930608.ece

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