Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Facilitated What?

Some years ago I saw a Frontline documentary called "Prisoners of Silence"  (original air date 1993.) I recommend it highly.  It tells the story of a wonderful technique called "facilitated communication", which apparently unlocked the inner lives of severely disabled people who previously were thought to be mentally retarded.  People who were believed to have the mental age of an infant or toddler were suddenly writing poetry and authoring papers for conferences.

The technique works through the use of a keyboard.  The client types keys while the facilitator supports his hand.  Astonishingly, people who seemed to be deeply retarded had taught themselves to read and write!

Finally, people started asking questions and running experiments.  For instance, they showed the client one picture (say, a boat) and the facilitator another (say, a hat.)  Then they asked the client what he had just seen.  Every time, the client communicated what the facilitator had seen, not what he had seen himself.

So the miracle technique that would allow the disabled to communicate their inmost thoughts turned out to be a fraud; the facilitators were really communicating their own thoughts, and using the disabled client as a sort of puppet.  Many of the facilitators were horrified by these results. They had genuinely believed they were unlocking their client's inmost thoughts and had no idea they were just projecting their own.

Apparently the world of therapy is like the world of education.  Proving that a technique doesn't work is not enough to prevent its use.  Facilitated communication, after being debunked by study after study, is still going on.

And so we come to a recent New York Times article, "The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield".  Anna Stubblefield was a Professor of Ethics (!) at Rutgers.  She thought she would help a disabled young man through the use of facilitated communication, and wound up falling in love with him and then performing sex acts on him in her office.  She is now facing a possible 40-year sentence (!) for sexual assault.

In case you were wondering whether there was the slightest chance that the disabled young man was really communicating for himself, check out this passage, which actually made me laugh out loud when I read it for the first time:
Anna asked him if he might want to see some pornography, ‘‘to see what things looked like and different positions people used and that sort of thing.’’ She said she wouldn’t want to pay for porn or watch anything offensive, but that she would be O.K. with finding free clips on the Internet that depicted couples engaging in mutually pleasurable intercourse. He demurred, typing out that in his view the women in porn are being exploited, and that, besides, Anna was more beautiful than any porn star, and he really wanted to be thinking only about her when they finally made love.
Now, really.  Clearly Anna was completely delusional and engaged in a fantasy relationship that took place entirely inside her own head.  Does that sound like something a 30 year old man would say?

In order to believe in facilitated communication, you have to believe (among other things) that it is extremely easy to learn to read, write, and spell.  Here's the mother of a disabled man who uses F.C.:
‘‘We figured out that he taught himself to read at age 3 by reading a dictionary,’’ his mother said. ‘‘Now he’s a senior in high school.’’
And here's Anna's account:
Anna brought books for [the disabled man] to read, Maya Angelou and others, and discovered that he read like a savant — 10 pages every minute. (She turned the pages for him.) 
This accords with the modern educational view that kids can teach themselves to read through repeated exposure.  Sure, some extremely bright and verbal kids can do it, but many others can't, and the belief that this is the norm has caused a lot of kids to feel like failures at the beginning of their school career.

In the "Frontline" special, one of the words that a disabled girl types out after her facilitator sees the object is "key".  If you've worked with a child who's struggling to learn to read (as I have with Younger Daughter), you'd notice right away that "key" is one of those tricky English spellings.  Even a bright neurotypical child would be likely to spell it "ke", or, a more educated guess, "kee". How could a child with no formal instruction have magically re-invented the complex patterns of English spelling?

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