Speech Professionals Denounce Controversial Communication Methods
by Courtney Perkes, Disability Scoop
Photo: The Wendrow family, pictured in 2011 in Wolvering Lake, Mich., was nearly destroyed when police and prosecutors went after parents Julian and Thal when their daughter with autism typed allegations of sexual abuse against them using facilitated communication. The parents were jailed and the children placed in foster care for months before police and prosecutors admitted she could not communicate at all. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
This month, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association came out with a position statement discouraging the use of facilitated communication and similar methods.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or ASHA, unanimously approved position statements this month discouraging the use of “facilitated communication,” “rapid prompting method” and similar practices. The group said people with communication disabilities have the right to effective, independent means of communication.
In its statement on facilitated communication, ASHA said that extensive scientific research has found that messages “are authored by the ‘facilitator’ rather than the person with a disability.” A facilitator is used to provide physical support for the person to point to letters or pictures on a keyboard or communication board.
ASHA described rapid prompting method as lacking scientific validity. That technique calls for a person with a disability to point to letters to form words. The facilitator holds the letter board and provides repeated verbal, auditory or visual prompts.
“(The position statements are) meant to help educate and summarize the latest information and make people aware that while it might seem like an attractive technique to some, there’s the potential for harm,” said Ireland.
ASHA first cautioned against facilitated communication in 1995 but the updated position is more strongly worded.
“I think it will help especially for those speech-language pathologists and other interested people who don’t really know the issue,” said James Todd, a psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University who has studied both methods. “This might be unfamiliar to them and this would be a reasonable warning against using (the techniques) from a large professional organization.”
Todd said he understands why parents of children who are nonverbal might want to try the techniques, but cited cases where facilitated communication has resulted in false allegations of abuse.
Just this spring, for example, Florida prosecutors dropped charges against the father of a boy with autism after determining that abuse allegations that surfaced when a teacher used facilitated communication with the boy were unsubstantiated.
“They want to talk to their kids and be able to say, ‘I love you’ and hear ‘I love you back,'” Todd said. “The professionals have a professional obligation not to let themselves be fooled in this way.”
But others disagree with the position statements. In a letter to ASHA last month, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network raised concerns about undermining “access to communication supports for individuals who have no equally effective alternate forms of communication.”
Samantha Crane, legal director and director of public policy for the group, said already some schools have cited the recommendation in denying use of one of the methods in the classroom.
“If there’s even one person who is using this method and is truly communicating, they need to be allowed to continue to communicate,” she said. “What we really try and advocate for is a form of communication that is truly language based and open-ended, in which a person can decide which words and phrases they get to say.”