A critical analysis of facilitated communication

In the final installment on facilitated communication (FC) we are going to look at three people who have embraced FC — one who has raised public awareness of FC, another who has linked his professional career to FC and one who has caught the attention of a renowned skeptic.

Douglas Biklen

Douglas Biklen is a sociology professor largely responsible for the popularization of FC in the U.S.. Biklen created the Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University in 1989, which raised FC’s credibility in public opinion. Even though no other accredited university supports FC like this, according to the 1993 PBS documentary Prisoners of Silence, facilitators in schools and adult centres in 38 states were being funded by millions of dollars from the public without scientific support of this practice. The issue, however, isn’t just about FC being a waste of money, but a detriment to the lives involved with its usage.

The first two court decisions in the U.S., involving rape allegations made through FC, were in 1992. The judges who heard the cases ultimately dismissed them because FC’s validity had not been established by the prosecution, and there was no other evidence.

In a more recent example of the potential impact false FC claims can have on families, in California a 14-year old girl’s FC messages accused her parents and 13-year old brother of rape. For more than three months the father was jailed and her brother was put into a foster home, until an investigation concluded that no rape ever occurred.

Steven Laureys

Steven Laureys, from the University of Liege, is the expert neurologist who headed the studies on Rom Houben, the Belgian man who, until recently, was thought to be in a coma, and whose case has repopularized the practice of FC in the mainstream media.
Since his 2006 publication (which found that Houben was “aware” via brain scans and various tests), patients from all over the world have been going to his center for a second opinion. Laureys says, “[A]fter the tests we
[ . . . ] confirm that [ . . . ] there is no error; but that too helps the family accept reality,” that their loved one is indeed in a coma, and not suffering from “locked in syndrome.”

But scientist-bloggers on the Internet are insisting that Laureys is the one who needs to accept reality. Steven Novella, a medical doctior who runs the blog NeuroLogica, feels that Laureys’ dedication to FC might be without scientific basis. However Laureys says that he tested FC by showing something to Houben without the facilitator present, and then getting Houben to use FC to tell what was shown.

In an interview in New Scientist on Nov. 29, 2009, Dr. Laureys was asked about the videos where FC was used while Houben’s eyes were closed. Laureys insisted that he is a skeptic himself, saying, “What is happening now is very regrettable. I feel sorry for Rom and about what some people have written on the net. He is again being treated as if [he is not a] cognitive being. Should I respond to that? I don’t want to.”

Noted anonymous skeptical blogger Orac writes, “I suspect that Dr. Laureys has allowed his personal emotions and connection to Rom Houben and his family cloud his objectivity.” He compassionately adds, “Still, Dr. Laureys shouldn’t feel too bad. Many are the scientists who have been fooled by various pseudoscience.” The problem, in Orac’s view, is that Laureys has let his sense of professional worth become linked to this case, which is “preventing him from thinking critically.”

Linda Woulters

Linda Wouters is the speech therapist who is Houben’s facilitator. No one seems more furious with her involvement with Houben than James Randi — the skeptic from last week’s installment — who recently posted in his blog, “This FC claim is simply untrue, a farce, a lie and the ‘facilitator’ knows it!” This is a strong allegation. Randi bases his concerns on a potential motive: just as Rosemary Crossley (the inventor of FC) wrote books on FC with autistic children, Wouters is now transcribing a book which Houben is apparently writing through the use of FC.

The real tragedy in the Houben case, and with the use of FC, is that people who are truly trying to communicate through other means might be ignored. In 2006, Houben allegedly started using a foot pedal to answer yes/no questions. Since no one “facilitated” (i.e., influenced) his movements, one could assume that the answers given were Houben’s and Houben’s alone. It’s unclear how communicative Houben truly was with the foot pedal, but FC soon took over to speed up his communication, and the use of the pedal was abandoned.

The reality of the Houben case is perhaps best summed up by John Jackson from the UK website
Skeptics.org.uk, who writes, “It is rather disturbing, to say the least, that Houben may be fully aware of what’s going on, but by a cruel irony is unable to communicate this because of the use of FC on his behalf.” Hoping for action, Randi appeals on his blog: “And no, this man is not going to write a book, but the ‘facilitator’ is, and if this humbug is not stopped, she’ll make a fortune doing so. Put a stop to this, someone!”