The strange case of facilitated communication

During the late eighties I was working in a residential unit for autistic adults with severe learning difficulties. This was quite exciting because these people had absolutely no spoken language and some of them were prone to launching murderous assaults upon anybody who annoyed them in any way. They had all be recently released from long term institutions such as Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, as part of the care in the community programme. While I was working there, we were approached by a group of people who offered to help us communicate more effectively with our residents. At that time most of them knew only a few Makaton signs; Makaton is a simplified version of British Sign Language. The method which was now suggested was facilitated communication.

Facilitated communication was very popular among some of those working with non-verbal autistic people at that time. It worked a bit like a Ouija Board. A large piece of cardboard with the alphabet printed on it was used and the autistic person's arm was held by the communicator and they were 'helped' to point to the letters. The person with severe learning difficulties who had never spoken a word in his life could then communicate by spelling out messages; the whole idea being that these people had actually learned to read and spell by themselves, quite unknown to anybody else. In fact they didn't have learning difficulties at all, they were really just normal people locked into bodies which would not obey them.

It sounded odd to me as I knew all these residents very well and simply could not believe that they could really read and write. The thesis was that their aggressive behaviour was caused by their inability to make themselves understood. Anyway, we went along with it and I watched with interest. it soon became clear to me that the whole thing was nonsense. rather than 'helping' the resident to spell out the words, the facilitator was, whether consciously or not, using the persons hand as a pointer and making up the messages herself. I began asking questions and making notes about what was happening, upon which a curious thing happened. The whole thing stopped working at once. It turned out that close observation had the effect of destroying the trust which existed in the room and damaging what was taking place. I agreed to stop taking notes and limited myself to asking questions of the facilitators when we were alone. It then appeared that even the presence of a sceptic was enough to disrupt what was happening. I was banned from even sitting in on the sessions.

I managed to get this stopped in the end, because the residents own money was being spent on this swindle and it was outrageous. Tests were carried out in the USA on this process and it was found that if the facilitator could not hear the questions being asked, then the autistic person could not answer. It was conclusively demonstrated that, as I suspected, the whole thing was ridiculous.

I mentioned Ouija Boards earlier and this was very similar to my experiences with contacting the dead. Because whenever I have taken part in seances or anything similar, exactly the same thing happens. It will not work while I am present. Very odd.

I have for years been suspicious of any unusual phenomenon which people grow angry about when questioned. I am also very suspicious of any sort of activity which is destroyed or disrupted by being watched or which stops taking place when a cynical observer is present. Transcendental Meditation, the transubstantiation of the Host, summoning up the dead, spoon bending, dowsing and so on are all like this in some way. So of course is autonomous education.

While I was allowed on lists such as HE-UK and EO, I asked many questions about autonomous education. The aim was not to make people angry but to try and make some sense of the thing. I soon discovered that people grew angry and defensive very quickly when questioned about this subject. The idea seemed to be that one should take the existence of this on faith and that it was bad form to be sceptical about it. This is how people react when questioned about their religious beliefs. I also noticed that when discussion turned to research, parents claimed that they would not want an unsympathetic observer to conduct research into autonomous education because their cynicism might harm the educational process. Hence the attempt to organise a boycott of the Ofsted survey last year and the determination of many not to take part in the Department for Education's longitudinal study of home education outcomes. This is similar to the way that dowsers will not allow objective observers to test their abilities. Those using telekinesis to bend spoons or clairvoyance to talk to predict the future also dislike being observed by non-believers. Their powers often fade under lack of sympathy!

There is another similarity between facilitated communication and autonomous education. Parents often follow these unconventional treatments when they feel that they have been failed by orthodox medicine and education. So it is in many cases with autonomous education. Conventional schooling has been a flop for their child and so they turn to alternative methods. An alternative method which cannot be measured, assessed or, most important of all, ever disproved. This has to be an attractive prospect. My child was written off as a failure/bullied/struggled/could not cope, but it was nothing to do with her at all; it was the system which failed. I have seen this many times in the field of autism with not only facilitated communication but also Holding Therapy, mega-vitamins and various other things.

Mind, I do not say that autonomous education actually does fall into the same category as some of the other belief systems which I discuss above; only that its adherents behave in the same way. As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out, but I have to say that my own inclination is moving in a certain direction.