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Why Facilitated Communication for Special Needs Students Doesn't Work

Updated on June 24, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.


The technique, facilitated communication (FC), has been making a comeback, of sorts. Under the new name of “supported typing” this form of alternative communication for non-verbal individuals has received support from the organization Autism Speaks, as well as an unexpected and indirect endorsement from the reputable institution, MIT’s Media Lab.

This is an incredible revelation, considering that FC has been debunked by numerous scientific studies. Countless studies made since the 1990s have found no evidence that this technique works. Yet, universities such as MIT and Syracuse University are still teaching and training facilitators to use this technique.

While this program appears to offer a “miracle” that will open up a world of possibilities for the non-verbal individual with autism, the science behind its effectiveness is simply not there. Parents, educators, and others working with individuals with autism, should be wary of FC.

What is Facilitated Communication?

FC requires a facilitator to assist a non-verbal person to type on an electronic keyboard as a means of communication. A screen on the keyboard or connected to it displays the written language of the individual. The trained facilitator will hold the individual’s hand and arms and help him type on the keyboard.

Often, the individual suffers from some form of disability that affects his ability to verbally communicate his thoughts. While commonly used for individuals with severe forms of autism, FC has been used with those with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities such as mental retardation.

Many of them are in a semi-vegetative state, wheelchair bound, and have limited use of motor skills. A popular photographfound on the Internet shows an individual using FC. He appears nearly comatose, eyes closed and mouth-gaped while his limp arm is held over a keyboard by the facilitator. Several reports have described the FC “user” as staring at the sky or ceiling while typing a response of the board


Its Troubled History

FC originated in Australia in 1977. It was conceived by Rosemary Crossley, a teacher at St. Nicholas Hospital. Even then, the practice came under scrutiny by the Health Commission of Victoria. That was until one of her students with cerebral palsy, Anne McDonald, managed to win her release from the hospital in 1979.

Although many questions were raised, McDonald – with the help of Crossley – managed to convince the Supreme Court of Victoria that she was capable of living outside the hospital’s facilities. She – again, with the help of Crossley – would later write a book detailing her ordeal in the hospital.

The case also led to international attention. In particular, individuals in the United States took notice. First, Physicist Arthur Schawlow claimed he used FC on his autistic son with successful results in the early 1980s. Then, a sociologist and professor of special education at Syracuse University, Douglas Biklen, studied it. After investigating Crossley’s procedures in 1989, Biklen returned to Syracuse and created the Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University.

In the early 1990s, FC was heralded as a miracle. According to Biklen, FC was showing results when used with individuals with severe autism. They were accomplishing things such as composing poems, or expressing well-developed opinions on various subjects. To him it was as if these severely disabled students were unleashing an intellect long trapped within them.

Parents of children with disabilities and educators rejoiced; the media (In particular, the news show, 20/20) called it a triumph; and its creator was hailed as an innovator. It was believed that this process would open a world of opportunity for these individuals. Some even claimed it would change the way the public viewed autistic and non-verbal people.

In the early 1990s, facilitated FC was being heralded as a miracle. According to Biklen, FC was showing results when used with individuals with severe autism

However, not everyone was impressed. Some special educators were perplexed when they saw the students using this technique without looking at the board. Numerous researchers conducted studies on it as well, discovering that the writing style and vocabulary used by the facilitators matched the supposed messages of the individual they were helping.

Soon, major organizations were finding disparities. According to The Skeptic's Dictionary, In 1993, the American of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that FC was not a scientifically valid technique for people with autism or mental retardation (Carroll, 2011).

In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association stated that the facilitators were subconsciously putting out the language output rather than the individual with disabilities. And in 1998, the Behavior Analysis Association of Michigan stated it is “incapable of establishing unexpected literacy or producing valid messages above the facilitated individual’s established communicative level (Carroll, 2011).”

Even the media was starting to turn against it. First, PBS’s 1993 Frontline documentary, “Prisoners of Science” exposed the fallacies behind FC. Also, a 60 Minutes segment debunked it.

Possibly the most damaging case against FC came when it was tested in a court of law. In one case, a Michigan father was falsely accused of molesting his 14-year-old autistic daughter. The accusation came from a school aide (the facilitator) who claimed the girl told her by using FC.

Again, FC was put to the test; this time, a man’s life was in the balance. As part of the cross examination the defense attorneys assigned a different facilitator to see if the girl would be able to tell the same story. The story told this time was very different from the original accusation. Similar cases came forth, and the results were the same as the first. All cases were dismissed

Hoax or Wishful Thinking?

To this day, there are still groups and institutions -- including Biklen and Syracuse University -- that stand behind the potentials of FC. These proponents truly believe there are some benefits that came from this technique. Also, many of these proponents are not out to hurt the children with disabilities and will dedicate their lives to find a cure for autism and other similar disabilities.

However, these good intentions are placed blindly on a faulty product. Parents or educators searching for a miracle to improve a non-verbal autistic child’s lives may need to look somewhere else. FC simply doesn’t work

Update: 2017

When this article was first published several years ago, some readers -- especially those involved with facilitated communication -- didn't take to this article. In one case, a person involved with a FC group not only trashed the article, he threatened to tell members of this particular group and have them "harass me" with a flurry of e-mails and comments. Also, he claimed he was going to get details to back his claims that FC works.

That was over three years ago. I'm still waiting any word from him and the members of his group.

Rom Houben - a person who was touted as proof that facilitated communication worked. It was later revealed that Rom and his facilitator couldn't replicate earlier claims of his ability to communicate through facilitated communication.
Rom Houben - a person who was touted as proof that facilitated communication worked. It was later revealed that Rom and his facilitator couldn't replicate earlier claims of his ability to communicate through facilitated communication. | Source

© 2015 Dean Traylor


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