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Facilitated Communication

 

Who's the Liar and the Cheat?
An Examination of Chris Borthwick's Charges of Fraud Against Frontline and Documentary Producer Jon Palfreman

"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.

 

Rosemary Crossley with man wearing head pointer
 

Figure 1: Image from "Prisoners of Silence" showing Rosemary Crossley preparing to facilitate an important placement decision with a man in a coma.

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).

Picture 2
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Picture45
     

Figure 2. Side-by-side comparison of the card position at the beginning and end of the Crossley segment of "Prisoners of Silence" (elapsed time, 44 seconds).These frames show the card moving downward and to the viewer's right, sliding partially behind Crossley's right hand at the bottom of the screen.

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.

So how come the top of the board moved down and the bottom didn't budge? Because the camera, like all cameras, "lied." Movement of the top of the board away from the camera was transformed into movement down the screen. Why did the board move away from the camera? Because the man, who was not in a coma, was pressing on the board as he pushed his head pointer up towards his target. (Crossley, 1997, pp. 263-264)

Draw a line around my thumb supporting the bottom of the board and it is obvious that my hand moves fractionally, if at all. (Crossley, 1997, p. 263)

Now you know someting the Frontline producer and the "scientists" apparently didn't know: the difference between three dimensions and two, and the difficulty of converting one into the other. (Crossley, 1997, p. 264)

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.

Ah, but you can't argue with science, can you? They did the experiments, and the experiments showed that FCT didn't work, that it was all an illusion. They even showed it on-screen! Rosemary Crossley seemed to be helping a person with disability point to letters on a board, but the Frontline people drew a line across the top of the board and showed that the board moved away from the line - that the disabled person wasn't moving the pointer to the letters, the facilitator was moving the letters to the pointer. Irrefutable proof! On-screen!

It's rare that you can actually show on-screen that someone's a liar and a cheat. Normally there's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing involved, and all sorts of questions as to who you believe. Palfreman is a liar and a cheat, and if you have a video of the program you, too, can prove it. On-screen. In class.

Frontline drew a line across the top of the communication board. Get a felt-tip and draw a line around the thumb that's holding the board. Play the tape. The thumb doesn't move. The bottom of the board doesn't move. The top of the board apparently does. What's happening? Has the board moved? Is the board shrinking?

What's happening is that you've forgotten that the TV screen is two-dimensional. If a board is held vertically in front of a camera, it shows as a square. If you tilt the top away from the camera but hold the bottom still, the top of the board will seem to drop. It's complicated to describe, and it's bloody difficult to draw clearly in two dimensions, but it's easy enough to demonstrate; pick a piece of paper off your desk, hold it up till the top's just level with the windowframe, and tilt it back. Hey presto. It's called perspective, and we've known about it since the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century. Palfreman knows about it. It didn't suit him to tell you. Crossley wasn't moving the board down, the man's pointer was pushing the board back.

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.

Crossley Hand with Outline  Before
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Crossley Hand with Outline After
     

Figure 2. Side-by-side comparison of the card position at the beginning and end of the Crossley segment of "Prisoners of Silence" with outlines added (elapsed time, 44 seconds). Contrary to Borthwick's assertion, Crossley's thumb can be seen to move downward and to the viewer's right.

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:

I've tried to find a middle ground. I don't know what the middle ground is. Either it works or it doesn't work. It doesn't work, so we have to abandon it. Abandoning it means that we just go back to--come back to--where we are, come back to reality


Notes:

1. There is no evidence that Galileo ever said this, or the Latin version "eppur si muove." It is a legend, what we would like to think Galileo should have said in defiance of the Inquisition. In honor of the present topic, we will label such misattributions "facilitated history."

2. Crossley, R. (1997). Speechless: Facilitating communication for people without voices. New York: Dutton.

3. Mostert, M. (2001). Facilitated communication since 1995: A review of published studies. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(3), 287-313.


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