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Facilitated Communication Infiltrates MIT's Media Lab

5 June 2011. Facilitated communication (FC) allegedly allows communication through a trained assistant by people unable to communicate by speech or signs due to autism, mental retardation, or brain damage. The assistant places her hand over the subject's hand, arm, or wrist and guides the subject's finger to letters, words, or pictures on a board or keyboard. It is now generally accepted outside the FC community that communication is issuing from the facilitated communication in actionassistant, not from the subject. When a subject is looking skyward while the assistant is guiding a finger over letters describing what is happening in front of them, it becomes obvious that what is alleged to be happening is impossible unless the subject is having an out-of-body experience and communicating telepathically. Most critics of FC grant that the assistant's communication issues from her subconscious and that fraud is not involved. The FC hypothesis was first proposed over 30 years ago. It didn't have much evidence in its support then, and it still doesn't; but it has several well-heeled supporters.

Douglas BilkenFC was exposed as ineffective over a decade ago, yet it continues to flourish at Syracuse University under Douglas Biklen. This summer Biklen is bringing his discredited program to the prestigious Media Lab at MIT. Since FC is rejected by the wider scientific community, it has probably been a wise move on the FC advocate's part to change the name of the program from the Facilitated Communication Institute (FCI) to the Institute on Communication and Inclusion. The bogus technique is no longer referred to as facilitated communication. In lovely Orwellian fashion, FC is now called "supported typing" and the process is described as "communication by typing."

FC not only gives false hope to parents that their child has fantastic abilities hidden in his locked-up brain, it has been used to make false charges of abuse against parents and others. Either way, FC abuses the person, usually a child, it uses as a means to communicate poems, sophisticated ideas about physics, and horrific tales of sexual torture.

In 1993, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics stated:

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that FC is not a scientifically valid technique for individuals with autism or mental retardation. In particular, information obtained via FC should not be used to confirm or deny allegations of abuse or to make diagnostic or treatment decisions.

In 1994, the American Association on Mental Retardation stated:

A substantial number of objective clinical evaluations and well controlled studies indicate that facilitated communication has not been shown to result in valid messages from the person being facilitated.

In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association stated:

Peer reviewed, scientifically based studies have found that the typed language output (represented through computers, letter boards, etc.) attributed to the clients was directed or systematically determined by the paraprofessional/professional therapists who provided facilitated assistance...Furthermore, it has not been scientifically demonstrated that the therapists are aware of their controlling influence.

In 1993, a Frontline (PBS) documentary called "Prisoners of Silence" thoroughly debunked FC and concluded:

One day, the mysterious condition of autism will be understood and researchers may find a cure. Until then, as the evidence against facilitated communication accumulates, a painful question remains, whether parents and those who care deeply about autistic individuals are choosing to see them as they would like them to be, rather than respecting them for who they are.

In 1998, the Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan stated:

Numerous empirically based, peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that facilitated communication is incapable of establishing "unexpected literacy" or producing valid messages above the facilitated individual's previously established communicative level.

Why would MIT's Media Lab be involved with something that is clearly a discredited pseudoscience?

MIT's Media Lab's involvement with FC goes back several years.

A private FC conference occurred in May 2008 involving Douglas Biklen, Head of the FC Institute, Rosalind Picard, Head of the MIT Affective Computing Group, Margaret Bauman of the Massachusetts General Ladders Program (a long time FC advocate; she tried to get the New England Center to use FC in the early 1990s; she just got $29 Million from Nancy Lurie Marks a major, major FC supporter), Martha Herbert of Harvard Medical (supports the view that autism is a movement disorder, justifying FC)...That meeting seems to have been designed to establish liaisons between FC advocates in the Media Lab, the Ladders Program at Massachusetts General, the Syracuse FC Institute [now the Institute on Communication and Inclusion], and the University of Buenos Aires (i.e., Daniel Orlievsky), and cannot be unconnected to this upcoming event in July.

Matt Goodwin reportedly went to Argentina in October 2008 to visit Daniel Orlievsky (who's psychodynamic and thinks FC might be a way to the autistic unconscious). I also see in the July's event the hand of the Nancy Lurie Marks Foundation (NLM), which has given millions of dollars to support FC endeavors. NLM provides the main support for Syracuse FC Institute and also supports several research projects in the Media Lab. (James Todd, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Eastern Michigan University; personal correspondence)

Affective computing is "artificial emotional intelligence—computing that simulates or analyzes human or animal emotions."* Matthew Goodwin works at the MIT Media Lab. His title is "Director of Clinical Research Autism & Communication Technology." He is the vice-chair of the Innovative Technology Steering Committee of Autism Speaks, David Kirby's outfit. Autism Speaks is a vocal supporter of the disgraced Andrew Wakefield.

Picard is a signer of the Discovery Institute's statement on ID, which tries to cast doubt on evolution in support of direct creation by a god. Picard has a rather enigmatic profession of faith on her MIT website devoted to Paul's letter to the Philippians. She is a presenter for the Veritas Forum, a group devoted to spreading the "inspiring story" of Jesus of Nazareth. Picard also is:

The author of nearly two hundred scientific articles and chapters in multidimensional signal modeling, computer vision, pattern recognition, machine learning, human-computer interaction, and affective computing, Picard is an international leader in envisioning and inventing innovative technology. She also holds multiple patents, having designed and developed a variety of new sensors, algorithms, and systems for sensing, recognizing, and responding respectfully to human affective information.*

Picard's work demonstrates that autistic persons may be having complex emotional reactions without appearing to have any emotions. Clearly, it is also possible that many autistic persons are having complex cognitive processes without appearing to be doing any complex thinking. It is a long way from that fact, however, to the claim that FC's "facilitators" are accessing that complex thought.

James Randi has described FC as a cruel farce.

I cannot understand how anyone, professional medical person or layman, can continue to believe that the farce known as "Facilitated Communication" [FC] represents anything other than a fantasy that was begun back in 1977, when an Australian woman named Rosemary Crossley came up with the idea that autistic persons could express their thoughts via a keyboard when their hand was "supported" by what she called a "facilitator." In 1989, Douglas Biklen, a sociologist and professor of special education at Syracuse University, eagerly took up her cause, and as a result vast sums were donated to SU by friends and family members of autism victims - money that was simply wasted in futile "research."

FC now has a promotional movie, "Wretches and Jabberers," an autism propaganda piece documentary that features FC and is being promoted by the Autism Society. Maybe you can catch it on the MIT campus this summer.

See also Skeptimedia: Facilitating a Dangerous Delusion at MIT

update 06 July 2011. Opinion: Of lawyers and scientists MIT must balance its science and advocacy more carefully by Keith Yost "...from July 20 to July 22, the MIT Media Lab is hosting a convention on Facilitated Communication (FC). FC is the idea that severely autistic people are capable of communicating with the outside world, and need only a facilitator to support their hands while they type at a keyboard. The concept has been long-discredited, with numerous studies showing that any positive results have been the result of ... unconscious direction by the facilitators. FC is the equivalent of believing that Ouija boards allow us to communicate with ghosts. Proponents of FC hope to use MIT’s good reputation to lend credit to their pseudoscience, and MIT shouldn’t let them." [/update]



* AmeriCares *


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