Another prestigious institution gets on the “Typing to Communicate” game

Beyond the University of Virginia (via Vikram Jaswal and his Eye Tracking Study), Cambridge University is also hard at work validating the latest forms of facilitated communication. I’m thinking, specifically, of Alex Woolgar, whose work (as yet unpublished) is described in detail on the International Association of Spelling as Communication (I-ASC) website.

A quick note to those who are new to all this and are thinking, “Don’t we all spell to communicate?”:

“Spelling to communicate” has come to mean a form of facilitated communication (aka “Rapid Prompting”) in which people with minimal speaking skills are induced to extend their index fingers to held-up letterboards and type out messages… but can do so only when the person holding the board is prompting them.

Researchers at various institutions, from Syracuse University to the University of Virginia to Nottingham Trent to Cambridge, have been hard at work trying to show that the messages typed out in this fashion are authored by the owners of the index fingers, as opposed to the people who hold up the letterboards and prompt them. While each researcher takes a different approach, they have two things in common: they avoid straightforward tests like blinding the facilitator (which probably won’t produce the results they’re looking for), and they instead try to dazzle their audience with technology (which may blind it to low-level design flaws).

One popular technology is eye-tracking software. One might use this, as Jaswal et al do, to try to establish that the owners of the index fingers look ahead at the letters before pointing to them–purportedly an indication of authorship. Given that the boards are non-stationary and that many spelling patterns are predictable, such data is inevitably quite flimsy.

Another popular technology is electroencephalography (EEG). One might use this to try to establish that the brains of the index fingers’ owners register signals that indicate that they comprehend what they’re typing. This is where Alex Woolgar’s Cambridge group appears to be heading. But for starters, they’re simply looking at general “comprehension.” I’ve put “comprehension” in quotes because it’s not clear that they’re measuring even that. As the I-ASC explains:

In their experiments so far, children and adults listened to spoken sentences while the researchers measured their brain activity with EEG. The sentences ended either with a final word that makes sense (e.g. “there were candles on the birthday cake” – called a CONGRUENT sentence) or with a final word that is surprising and does not make sense (e.g., “there were candles on the birthday eye” – called an INCONGRUENT sentence). When the brain processes the unexpected word, it produces a bigger signal compared to when the correct word is played.

The problem is that it’s quite possible to perceive “birthday cake” as a more familiar speech pattern than “birthday eye” for reasons that have nothing to do with comprehension.

Just as it’s possible, via familiar spelling patterns, to look ahead in anticipation to the letter “H” after typing “T” for reasons that have nothing to do with message authorship.

It’s hard to believe that such prestigious people aren’t aware of these possibilities; more likely, what’s driving them is something other than scientific curiosity. According to the I-ASC, Woolgar

started this work after a 6-year- old child she volunteered with started to use Rapid Prompting Method, (RPM)… The experience changed Woolgar’s understanding of how well Lucy understood spoken language and made her question the scientific understanding of what autism is.

One day in a session with Woolgar, Lucy expressed frustration on behalf of other autistic children out there whose parents didn’t realise how much they understand. So, Woolgar and Lucy decided to team up and do some science together. Woolgar has spent 3 years developing new neuroimaging experiments, guided by Lucy’s insights.

Also of note is Woolgar’s appeal on Facebook inviting Rapid Promptees to participate in her study and answer her survey questions:

Woolgar is curious about a lot of things, but not, it seems, about questions of authorship. And it appears she’s in very good company.

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