AutAc Reads IADK, Part 6: Part VII, Part One

Part Zero, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

When we last left our review, I’d condensed Parts V and VI of In a Different Key into a single blog post, because there really wasn’t  enough material between the two to justify two separate posts.  Part VII is shorter than either Part V or Part VI, yet there is enough disparate material in here to make at least two separate blog posts.  Go figure.

Part VII begins with a couple sections on facilitated communication, or FC.  The version of FC the authors discuss is the most commonly-recognized one, which can be summed up as “one person types with someone else touching them, usually on the wrist, elbow, or shoulder.”

FC is, perhaps, one of the biggest controversies in the autism world.  It continues to spark any number of bitter arguments.  “Is the typist or facilitator the one doing the talking?” is a very specific question, one that has to be answered on a team by team basis.  Donvan and Zucker, of course, tackle this controversial and complex topic with the nuanced discussion and attention to detail it deserves.

Just kidding!  They butcher it.

Their apparent goal is to fall on the “FC is a hoax” side.  But, in this case, their rhetorical approach – of finding an invested parent or other non-autistic professional and encouraging the audience to identify with that person against the “demon” that is autism – ends up shooting their own argument in its foot.

The authors give us the story of Janyce Boynton.  Boynton, at one point, facilitated for a girl named Betsy, who produced a number of accusations of sexual abuse against her family while Boynton facilitated.  The investigation (including a testing procedure developed by Howard Shane) led to the conclusion that Boynton, not Betsy, was doing the typing.  Betsy’s claims – and FC as a whole – were dismissed.

Traditionally, the “Is the typist or facilitator the one doing the talking?” question leads to two possible conclusions.  If the typist is producing the words, FC is considered to be legitimate, and a wonderful resource for people who might have no other access to words.  If the facilitator is producing the words, FC is considered to be a sham, and a sick example of adults who should know better taking advantage of intellectually disabled people (often children).

The “false sexual abuse allegations” controversy surrounding FC falls into this latter category: adults manipulating children to “get back” at parents, or for other nefarious reasons.  That is to say, the false sexual abuse allegations controversy typically falls into the latter category.

By choosing Boynton as their point of view character, however, Donvan and Zucker create a third category: FC as hoax that harms the facilitator.  Boynton is painted as the real victim of the story – not Betsy, nor Betsy’s family.

According to Donvan and Zucker, the person hurt most by facilitated communication is the facilitator proven to be the one typing “Betsy’s” words for her – for the authors never question whether Betsy was proven not to be the one doing the typing.  Nonetheless, the authors don’t blame Boynton for having taken advantage of Betsy.  Rather, they emphasize how very bad Boynton felt about the whole thing, and how facilitated communication – the very thing they claim allowed Boynton to take advantage of an intellectually disabled child! – had ruined both Boynton’s career and her emotional state.

No matter where you stand on the legitimacy of facilitated communication, Donvan and Zucker’s take on it beggars belief.  If the facilitator is doing the typing, the facilitator is taking advantage of the “typist,” full stop. The facilitator is performing an specific, chosen action (typing) and lying about where it is coming from (not me!).  If the facilitator is typing, the facilitator is not the victim.  Yet this is precisely what Donvan and Zucker want us to believe – that Boynton was doing Betsy’s typing, and that Boynton was the victim.

When I brought this up in an autistic working group of which I am a part, one of the group members suggested that perhaps Donvan and Zucker believe that Boynton, so desperately overcome by her wish to see FC work, was typing without being aware of it, in a sort of autohypnotic state.  This suggestion was made somewhat tongue in cheek, and In A Different Key never does explain.  Yet, sadly, it’s the explanation for this section that makes the most sense.

Even more sadly, it’s the explanation that fits best with later attempts to debunk FC that claimed that any physical contact with the typist, no matter how slight, could be used to manipulate the typist’s message.  A fingertip on the shoulder, for instance, could be (and has been!) said to produce reams of sexual abuse allegations or orders of coffee that the typist never intended.  This stance has been taken as reasonable by any number of people in the autism field, so perhaps it is not so far-fetched that the power of FC’s proponents extends to making facilitators as well as typists say things they do not think.



2 thoughts on “AutAc Reads IADK, Part 6: Part VII, Part One

  1. Here’s the thing.

    Regardless of whether the facilitator is doing the typing (which they definitely are in at least some cases, but we really don’t know how many), it seems to me that using sexual abuse allegations as an argument for saying that FC is *always* a hoax is pretty low. After all, when someone is nonverbal and presumed non communicative, they are EXTREMELY vulnerable to abuse of any kind. The very argument about facilitators “cruelly” manipulating the nonverbal people illustrates this! Why, then, is it so far-fetched to believe that a nonverbal autistic could EASILY be sexually abused by parents who appear to be friendly in public (a lot of abusive parents are great at this and appear to be the greatest parent ever) and not be able to tell anyone about it. Combine these allegations with the abusive nature of many prominent “autism parents” (you know, the type who broadcast videos of meltdowns and poop smearing and things like dog training type videos featuring an adult nonverbal autistic), and is incredibly easy to believe that a nonverbal person could be sexually abused even if the person accused of doing it seems to be the greatest person in the world. Heck, parents (and teachers) can get away with doing this kind of thing to very articulate children, sometimes until the kid reaches adulthood and even beyond. How much easier must it be to abuse a nonverbal autistic kid presumed unable to communicate, sexually or otherwise, and get away with it.

    Also, many of the things used to help “debunk” FC as a whole are things like the autistic having trouble staying on task, motor conditions not being part of autism (even though comorbid conditions are a thing and even so-called “high-functioning” autistics often have dyspraxia), and poetic language being used (never mind that echolalia can be similar to poetic language and poetic language can at times come fairly easily to autistics who are still learning to figure out, say, the difference between “my” and “your”, like my 4-year-old self), not to mention strong political opinions, which are not uncommon among autistics.

    Not to mention, it is possible that some of the outside influence from FC could have been from nonverbal autistics learning unconscious (or conscious) facilitator cues and following them, like when they receive heavy shoulder prompts – and yes, even though there were studies that said that facilitator influence happens regardless of prompt location, they did not, for instance, say how much force was used for each prompt (say, they did not differentiate between a finger on a shoulder, a light touch of hand on shoulder, or a press on the shoulder) or how easy it would be for someone to fight the facilitator in a specific position. Not to mention, when the facilitators were merely touching the person’s back or being in the room, they ramped up the difficulty of the test, sending the facilitators out of the room rather than using the “message passing” tests used for more hands-on prompts, which would probably have demonstrated authenticity on the part of the typer. They also did not do studies involving those who correct their letters by moving them out of the facilitator’s hand or those who read the message with their voice as they type.

    Worse still, do outright FC opponents really think that ABA does not exert a strong influence on people? That’s ridiculous; ABA survivors have said themselves that scripts trained into them have undermined their ability to communicate properly in certain situations (and no, there is no scientific study that debunks that specific claim). Besides, there is a reason that operant conditioning is not considered proof of language in animal studies; it isn’t. You need more than that, and animals, like Alex the parrot, have provided more.

    As for them citing prompt dependency, do they really think that that is equal to somebody else influencing every single letter a person types? It could just be influencing the rhythm at which someone types; this kind of influence may undermine certain skills, but exact communication is not one of them, not unless other methods are used, like abusive control. Not to mention, even though ABA does involve prompt fading, the hyper-repetitive nature of the exercise can, in a sense, be equal to that, with the autistic learning to “prompt” themselves with the same kind of pattern the ABA instructor used originally; so, in a way, those prompts never really faded, they were internalized. And it’s true that we all internalize prompts, like conversational rhythm, but ABA prompts, once internalized, can lead to some of the “robotic”, “pedantic” and “stilted” behaviors attributed to autism. And they can be internalized really well by autistics; some of us, after all, can count out a minute with perfect accuracy without even looking at a clock if we concentrate. Also, it teaches atypical language patterns and, even though it promises to move on and fade prompts, it bases itself on motivation. The upshot of this is a person could be trapped at a particular ABA stage, or several stages in succession, as surely as the person with the facilitator who types for them is stuck with them, and for similar periods of time too. Also, does it not occur to them that some people turned to FC and RPM because ABA failed? I believe Amy Sequenzia and Ido Kedar said so quite clearly.

    At its worst, I don’t believe that FC and RPM are worse than ABA; the influences just lie in a different place. And any facilitators that influence the word of those who they are supposed to be helping on purpose are being unethical.

    I think FC is an EXTREMELY high-risk procedure that can lead to someone’s voice being taken over, but I will also say this; ABA does it too, in a more subtle way, where the insidious influences cannot be seen and are internalized, and besides, if someone’s parents got them a facilitator, they probably were not being allowed a voice in the first place. If those who oppose FC really want to see it die, they need to listen to the kids, ignore no potential attempts at communication, no matter how nonsensical they seem (like saying “toast toast toast” to mean 3 pieces of toast, or “FBI RED ALERT” to mean “danger” or being metaphorically echolalic, like Cam in the book UnWholly, by Neal Shusterman), or how unlike words (like a person who reaches out towards a dog with a whole hand; this probably means they want to pet the dog or get closer). They also need to listen to the perspective of autistic adults, who can tell them about various possible sensory sensitivities and other issues to test for, as well as gestures that autistics, even speaking ones with PhDs, might have in common with a nonverbal kid or adult. And most of all, they need to NOT EXTINGUISH STIMMING: some of that, even a lot of it, could be communication. And I don’t mean just simple ideas like being upset or happy. I mean more complex ones. And besides, seemingly irrelevant words might not only be metaphorical echolalia but also literally talking about something NTs do not consider relevant, like one instance in which a man who was presumed to be totally nonverbal and was used in the aforementioned dog-training-type videos said “flower”; the plate in front of him had flowers on it. And yeah, that totally sounds like something an autistic would think or say, even if NTs don’t consider it relevant.

    Now, if only Applied Behavioral Analysis actually meant carefully analyzing various things someone did and looking for triggers that are not the person’s fault (i.e. an itchy tag); that I could get behind, because it would actually be well-applied behavioral analysis that also acknowledges the humanity of the person. Alas, we live in a world in which ABA, where autistics are concerned, means “what kind of behavior did they do before they did the thing we don’t like, what can we use to get them to cooperate, and how well are they following our demands and of course this is what indicates how smart they are”.

    Besides, “antecedents” for an intentional bad behavior can be changed by anyone intent on behaving badly so as to fool people; why else do manipulative people do things like smile before they take your money, or magicians do sleight-of-hand. Not to mention, if the “antecedent” that is punished is required for a bad behavior, someone can change to a new bad behavior that does not require that antecedent (say, changing from putting a tack on a chair to covertly sticking out a tongue). Besides, if you punish an antecedent same as the bad behavior, the kid will learn that the two behaviors are morally the same thing. Oh, that’s right. ABA practitioners aren’t interested in their clients’ morals, are they?


    1. And yes, I know not giving a wanted thing is called positive reinforcement, positive punishment is when an unpleasant stimulus is applied, taking an unpleasant thing away is called negative reinforcement, and taking a pleasant thing actively away is called negative punishment, but to the kid being taught, that’s just semantics and wordsmithing. After all, the lay definition of punishment (intentionally causing a being to experience anything that the punisher knows the being finds unpleasant, even if it is not giving a field trip, which would be defined operantly as “not giving positive reinforcement”) is what is taught to most people, so using the operant definitions as a way of telling the client “I’m not punishing you” doesn’t cut it. The client will see that as weasel talk, and rightly so; I am sure most ABA practitioners know those lay definitions perfectly well. Nice try.


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