The Question of Authorship in Autism

The latest news about colleges and universities falling for facilitated communication reminds me of this old Out in Left Field post–from 2015. I had forgot about how long some of these issues have been on my mind.

Autism diaries: the question of authorship

“I just assumed you were coming back to the kitchen,” says J. “In fact, I did not even think of trying to leave the fan on all night.”

In fact; assume–to my ears, coming out of J’s mouth, these words sound almost miraculous. Not only are they the sort of subtle, conversational terms that are supposed to elude even higher functioning autistics, they’re also words J’s picked up on his own, simply by overhearing people use them. Nearly all the words in his vocabulary, until recently, had to be deliberately pointed out or defined for him, sometimes repeatedly. Now, through the incidental learning that typifies most neurotypical language learners but eludes most individuals with autism, these words have become fully J’s own.

I’ve written frequently about the question of authorship in autism. While this question arises most especially vis-a-vis the “facilitated communication” of nonverbal individuals, where it’s for from clear who (or what) is actually doing the communicating, it also arises with verbal kids who communicate independently. Kids on the spectrum often have copious memories and can regurgitate verbatim large tracks of memorized discourse and large bodies of memorized facts. Some of them go through intensive behavioral therapy that drills them in prepackaged conversational phrases and formulas. Autism autobiographies may undergo extensive re-writing by editors–even if those editors manage to maintain, more or less, the original authorial voice. Those rewrites, in turn, may be memorized and regurgitated by the original authors in book talks and other post-publication speeches.

The flat facial affect, flat tone of voice, and overall lack of expressivity of autistic speakers only heightens the question of who is really communicating. Is it the individual with autism, drawing spontaneously on internally processed knowledge, and putting words together independently and extemporaneously? Or is what we’re hearing ultimately the product of a facilitator, a behavioral script, a book editor, a word-button or word-prediction program, or an author of a text that has been read and reread out of obsessive autistic interest?

It’s often hard to say–and the line between the two extremes is often fuzzy. It’s probably somewhat fuzzy even for neurotypicals: all of us do some cutting and pasting of other people’s words.

In J’s case, however, the same things that have limited him over the years have minimized questions about authorship. He doesn’t sit for drills; his verbal memory is poor; he reads very little by choice; his only obsession is ceiling fans, and even this tremendously high-interest topic doesn’t inspire much reading; nor does he publish memoirs and give book talks.

What this means is that what comes out of J’s mouth or his various keyboards really is J–through and through. There’s absolutely no illusion whatsoever…

Except that there is–at a whole new level.

Yes, what comes out of J’s various keyboards really is J, through and through. But, as we’ve seen repeatedly, he often tries to pass off his words as belonging to someone else. He’s regularly and often successfully, impersonated each of his parents (on email end in text message), along with a few others–for example, those lucky individuals whose email accounts he’s hacked.

At his “best,” in other words, J not only isn’t echoing others, but is surpassing even himself.

7 thoughts on “The Question of Authorship in Autism

  1. In this post from 2015 you do mention “facilitated communication” but I did not notice your posts until 2016. You do not mention in this old post nor in any other post until fairly recently that J is “profoundly, profoundly deaf” and although he had a diagnosis of autism based on his behavior, I have expressed when I found out he was deaf and still question whether he is really on the autism spectrum and whether any of his personal experience is really relevant to any understanding of autism.

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  2. For my part, I question whether anyone who thinks that J is “only” deaf and not autistic
    1. has met any deaf people
    2. has met any people who are deaf *and* autistic
    3. has any understanding of the efficacy of cochlear implants when implanted in very young children

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  3. Yes, I have met deaf people. Yes, I have met people who are deaf and autistic. Cochlear implants is another matter but my statement is based on your own information about sensory issues which you seem to not understand for persons who are severely autistic such as my own son and others who use FC/RPM/S2C.. Also, I was a facilitator for a person who was deaf and autistic. So let’s agree to disagree and try to move on to trying to cooperate on issues on FC research which I will discuss on another blog when I am ready.

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  4. I just posted a Comment at 6:36 AM Monday, July 25, 2022 Israel time to blog entry:
    Clever Han(d)s Skepticism and “Ido in Autismland” June 29, 2022 Written By Janyce Boynton. “COMMENT AWAITING MODERATION” but I will now email it to you.

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  5. 4-1/2 days later since it is concerns FC and is very important, here is my comment to Clever Han(d)s Skepticism and “Ido in Autismland” June 29, 2022 Written By Janyce Boynton which has not been approved yet:

    In reply to my comment, largely about the ideomotor effects, Katharine Beals wrote:
    “Any experienced facilitators who are interested in exploring the possibility of ideomotor effects during facilitation will find researchers eager to work with them. Unfortunately, facilitators since the early 1990s have been instructed “don’t test,” and nearly all are compliant with that maxim.
    Could it be that the facilitators and parents of facilitated individuals are no longer interested in/curious about exploring the ideomotor effects in FC?”

    I sent Katharine Beals private emails from golden.arthur@gmail.com that proved I contacted Professor James T. Todd in 2010 and again in 2016 along with other leading Skeptics to be involved in FC research and they did not show any such interest, even though in 2016 I had found a very good replication site, obtained the interest of a number of other facilitators and arranged funding for FC research. Starting in 2016 I have had serious health issues and could not pursue these matters but I would like to try again to arrange FC research.

    So I reply to Katharine Beals – You only began to write about FC/RPM/S2C in 2016 but as shown by your latest article, you are now quite familiar with FC research. While you and I have expressed our disagreements over the years, I offer to cooperate with you to try to arrange FC research. Are you interested? If so, contact me by private email.

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