Facilitated Communication: a regrettable episode

This technique claimed to discover hidden potential in the most mentally handicapped of children. Naturally it was supported by many parents, as usual looking for the magic cure, or in this case a magic key to 'unlock the real and intelligent child within'. Less creditably it was, for a time also supported by staff in various departments, including speech therapy, in various institutions, at two of which the author worked for a time. They did not possess a sensible and coherent view of the world and were willing to countenance this silly idea.

A couple of cases involving the use of this bogus technique made me determined to do all I could to remove such nonsense from the groups of schools in which I was working at the time

In the first, a girl of m.l.d. capacity at worst, but probably closer to dull normal ability had been admitted to a school catering for s.l.d., ('autistic'), children, against my recommendations and advice. She had been placed in a class which included a girl of truly s.l.d. level, IQ about 40 (Julia K.) On a visit to this class I was horrified to be told that the teachers and speech therapists in the class were using FC and had 'determined' that Julia actually had a higher RA than the girl with dull normal IQ!!!
In the second case, on a visit to a different class, I was told by the teacher that a genuinely s.l.d. boy was being taught French, I think by a speech therapist, again with the aid of FC.
(Perhaps they were aiming too low, and could have been teaching him Quantum Theory, Nuclear Physics, and the General and Special Theory of Relativity.)
After this I decided to test the idea, with staff as witnesses, in an effort to get this stupid idea and silly practice outlawed in the schools

On 27.7.1993 I made a simple test of the idea in another school in the same group, which also catered for s.l.d. children and which was also practicing 'f.c.'. One teacher claimed to be able to produce levels of performance well beyond those predicted on the basis of my testing of the child's intellectual level and mental age.
In the first part of the test she and the child were presented with various tasks, in which the pair were asked a question, which required a point by the child to the correct pictured alternative. e.g. "Show me the courgette". The technique involves the 'facilitator', here the teacher, physically supporting the child's hand, (formed into a pointing shape) but claiming not to guide the movements of the child's hand.
In these circumstances all the questions were answered correctly.
In the second part the verbally posed questions could only be heard by the child, as the facilitator was got to wear headphones through which white noise was played continuously. (It is significant that initially the teacher raised strong objections to the noise).
The same set of questions used in the first part were used in the second, but the order of these was altered. In addition, in both halves of the experiment, the asker of the questions stood behind teacher and child in order to obviate any possibility that the teacher might lip read the speaker.
In these circumstances the success rate dropped to about two in ten.
After recording this experiment and its result I am pleased to note that the then director of the schools banned the use of F.C. in all the schools of the group.

Rather disappointingly, for the state of psychological science, a few years after this I saw a TV programme on persistent vegetative state, in which something remarkably like F.C. was being used on these brain damaged patients by a psychologist. In a similar way abilities beyond those thought possible were being 'demonstrated', to a audience similarly highly predisposed to uncritically accept the results on face value, i.e. friends or relatives of the patients. I did write to the person concerned pointing out the fatal flaws in her procedure, and although she was good enough to reply, she did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the error, and besides, claimed to be already looking for more objective communication methods. No doubt she failed to find them, or if she did find any I have no doubt that the supposed abilities claimed for the patients turned out to be non-existent. Even worse this occurred in what would seem to be a fairly prestigous London hospital.

Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it; similar episodes to these occured about a hundred years ago, and if pychology is primitive and infantile now what was it then?
If anyone is interested he should go back and study the case of one of the 'Elberfeld Horses', one known as "Clever Hans". This animal was claimed to be able to do simple maths, and apparently gave the answers by tapping his hoof on the ground. A psychologist was able to show that the horse was not in fact an equine mathematician but was simply responding to tiny movement cues from his trainer which told him when to stop tapping. At least in this case the trainer was not in physical contact with the horse as is the case with the two human cases above!
Another comparison is with the sort of evidence which convinced no less a person than Arthur Conan Doyle of the reality of Spiritualism, and of fairies, unlike the sceptic and stage magician Ehrich Weiss, (Houdini). As in our FC cases, the parents are made gullible by their emotional state, of actual loss of the physical child in the case of Doyle, (who lost a son to World War 1), of loss of the child's normality in the case of the parents of the handicapped child.

© 2000 John and Ian locking