"But it does move"--Galileo1
Shortly after the airing of Frontline's devastating 1993 documentary critique of facilitated communication (FC), Prisoners of Silence, the FC community was in an uproar. "Prisoners of Silence" showed that facilitated communication did not work as its proponents claimed it did. There was no unexpected literacy. There were no valid communications. The FC users typed correct or meaningful responses only when the facilitators knew the answers. Worse, FC was the source of numerous false allegations of sexual abuse made against parents, caretakers, and others--upending families and costing fortunes in legal fees before tests showed that the FC users were incapable of making the accusations. Controlled research invariably demonstrated that the facilitators were authoring the typed output, apparently unconsciously in many cases.
In one particularly shocking segment of the documentary, Rosemary Crossley, Director of the Deal Education Centre in Australia, was shown "facilitating" a choice of living arrangements by a man in a coma. A head pointer was placed on the comatose man as shown in Figure 1.
Crossley held a card with the choices written on it against the tip of the head pointer. The man in the coma then supposedly made his choice of living arrangements by moving the pointer. Something was wrong. Why should Crossley have to hold the card instead of mounting it on something more stable? If the man was capable of moving the head pointer accurately enough to point to one of four choices on the card, why was he unable to independently indicate "Yes" and "No" by some other more conventional and verifiable means?
By drawing an electronic line on the TV screen, Frontline was able to show that the man had not made the decision himself. Crossley had slowly moved the card,creating the illusion of an independent choice (see Figure 2).
Some members of the FC community reacted angrily to the Frontline documentary. They were especially incensed by the accusation that Crossley had used an unproven technique to create the illusion that a helpless man in a coma could answer complex questions about future living arrangements. Crossley herself objected, stating in the book Speechless (1997) that the bottom of the board "didn't budge," and that the movement of the top of the card was a visual illusion.
According to FC advocate Chris Borthwick, Frontline producer Jon Palfreman was nothing less than a "liar and a cheat." In an online statement entitled, "Prisoners of Silence: What Frontline Didn't Tell You, Borthwick mirrored Crossley's claim that the apparent movement of the card was a photographic trick--that the card was actually tipping backwards from the pressure of the head pointer--and that everyone involved with the Frontline's analysis was ignorant of basic principles of perception.
Borthwick and Crossley were wrong. Not only did Crossley's thumb move, the whole card moved just as Frontline stated. It appears that neither Crossley nor Borthwick actually drew an outline on a television screen as recommended. BAAM did. Figure 3 (below) shows an electronic version of the demonstration. When an outline is drawn around Crossley's right thumb at the bottom of the screen, the board not only slides downward under Crossley's thumb, which now partially obscures the word "Parents," the thumb can be seen to change position downward and to the right. That is, the bottom of the board has "budged" just as much as the top of the board. We have added a registration line to show that our outline is stationary relative to the background. Palfreman and Frontline are vindicated.
Obviously, the fundamental issue is more than moving thumbs. It is the critical matter of who is the author when FC is used. FC advocates continue to claim their technique works, providing a valid means of expression for people with autism. They had not proven their case in 1993 and have not done so now. Numerous controlled studies have provided clear and convincing evidence of facilitator influence whenever FC is used. Yet, 14 years since "Prisoners of Silence" first aired, there is still no controlled empirical evidence to demonstrate that FC works as its proponents claim it does. The few controlled studies that were done in the mid-1990 failed to adequately control for bias and contamination among the participants. Not one included a condition to test for facilitator influence3. Without testing for the source of the communications in FC, there can be no claim that a valid test of authorship has been done. Howard Shane's statement near the end of "Prisoners of Silence" is as true today as it was 14 years ago: