(Investigator 99, 2004 November)
In Australia in 1992, a controversial technique, allegedly designed to help persons suffering from an intellectual disability to communicate, was given wide and unusually uncritical publicity.
The technique was originally developed in the 1970s by Rosemary Crossley and her associates, at the Dignity Through Education and Language (DEAL) Communication centre in Melbourne, for work with people with cerebral palsy. It was introduced into the United States by Douglas Biklen, director of the division of special education and rehabilitation at Syracuse University.
FC is now principally used as a communication aid for individuals with autism – a severe developmental disability which, although relatively uncommon, justifies specialized educational and rehab services for those affected.
The technique requires a facilitator who supports the subject’s pointing finger, wrist or hand, and a list of letters, words or symbols on a flat surface. More recently the Canon Communicator, a small, portable keyboard with a tape printout has gained popularity.
Referred to by the Intellectual Disability Review Panel 1988: iv). FC is "communication by a person in which the response of that person is expressed through the use of equipment and is dependent on the assistance of another person." The intent is to support a person’s hand sufficiently to enable them to pick out letters and/or strike typewriter keys.
Demonstrations seemed to confirm the feasibility of FC, the formally mute were now communicating through their keyboards. Parents of autistic children were given the hope that this promise of communication previously beyond their reach was now a practical possibility.
Unfortunately, controlled studies suggest that these hopes were not only unrealistic but in addition, there have been several reports of the misuse of FC that have led to some bizarre accusations resulting in disaster for some families in Australia and the United States. Poorly trained and overzealous facilitators have uncovered (so they believe) evidence of child molestation by family members. They report this to the authorities and the nightmare begins.
In one study reported in the Autism Research Review (6  1992), FC was tested by an independent agency under a number of conditions:In the first condition, the subject got 8-9 of 10 correct. In the second, she got none correct. In the third condition, she got 4 out of 10 correct when she heard the same questions as the facilitator; but none correct when she heard a question different from the one the facilitator heard. However, four of these incorrect answers were the correct answers to the questions received by the facilitator.
The subject and the facilitator could hear the questions. The facilitator heard music through headphones while the subject heard the questions. Both the facilitator and the subject, wearing headphones, sometimes heard the same questions and some-times different questions.
Skeptics are quick to point to the parallels between Ouija and FC. With the former it is claimed that the spirit world has been contacted or that the messages are coming from an unconscious or the preconscious level of the subject, the latter process is often referred to as magical or it is said that no explanation is needed if it works.
As in so many cases when dealing with paranormal or pseudoscientific claims only the successes are noted – the failures are ignored.
It appears self-evident to me that more is involved than the simple support allegedly given by the facilitator to the patient’s arm. However, a mechanical support could be designed to do this, and if successful, would exonerate a human facilitator from any accusation that they are guiding as well as supporting.
It is often argued that Ouija can be taken simply as a form of entertainment and that it can’t hurt to use FC in a similar manner, however, that contention is just not true. Both have the potential for harm. Hunt (1985) for example writes:"The more suggestible a 'player', the more dangerous the Ouija game. In the early stages of obsession or possession, its victim becomes increasingly more reliant on the Ouija Board. He craves more and more revelations. Soon the messages become the experimenter’s sole interest. Normal activities and relationships become less important and even boring. The victim feels alive and alert only when working with the Ouija Board."
A similar phenomenon takes place when FC is used for individuals with autism.
Crossley, R. 1992. "Getting the words out: Case studies in facilitated Communication training." Topics in Language Disorders. 12: 46-59.
Crossley, R, & McDonald, A. 1980. Annie's Coming Out. Penguin.
Dillon, Kathleen M. 1993. "Facilitated Communication, Autism, and Ouija." Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 17. No. 3. pp 281-287.
Hunt, S. 1985. Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game. New York. Harper and Row.
Intellectual Disability Review Panel. 1988. Report to the Director-General on the Validity and Reliability of Assisted Communication. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Victoria Community Services.
Mulick, James A., Jacobson, John W., and Kobe, Frank H. 1993. "Anguished Silence and Helping Hands: Autism and Facilitated Communication." Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 17. No. 3. pp 270-280.
Prior, M. & Cummins, R. 1992. Questions about FacilitatedCommunication. Journal of Autism and Development Disorders. 22, 331-338.
Rimland, B. 1992. "Facilitated Communication: Now the bad news." Autism Research Review International, 6(l):3.
Williams, Barry. 1994. Abuse by Whom? the Skeptic, 14(3):27-29. Australian Skeptics Inc.
[From: Harry Edwards, A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age]