Way back when, when I was first developing my language training program for people with autism (then called the GrammarTrainer, now called the SentenceWeaver), a linguistic colleague of mine recommended I get in touch with a certain psycholinguist at the University of Wisconsin. Her recommendation stemmed from the GrammarTrainer’s approach to teaching English. While the new SentenceWeaver reads prompts out loud and allows speech as well as text input, the old GrammarTrainer was entirely text and typing-based: written prompts (“Where is the circle?”) soliciting typed responses (“The circle is between the triangle and square.”).
The reason my colleague suggested I contact this psycholinguistic was that she (the psycholinguist) had an autistic son who seemed to embody the potential of autistic individuals to master language entirely through text. The boy, completely non-speaking, had reportedly learned language, at least in part, from TV captions, and was now fully fluent. He could express all sorts of sophisticated thoughts–not by speaking (he remained non-oral), but by typing them out on a keyboard.
I was instantly suspicious, but not for the reasons I would be today. Back then, I had thought that Facilitated Communication was a thing of the past. After all, just a few years back, there’d been a major exposé on Frontline showcasing experiments that completely debunked it.
What made me suspicious, instead, was that it sounded like what this fully fluent, fully conversational boy had wasn’t an autism spectrum disorder, but a movement or motor control disorder–one that so impaired his oral motor functioning that he couldn’t coordinate his lips, tongue, and vocal cavity to make intelligible speech sounds.
Little did I know, back then, that Facilitated Communication not only hadn’t gone away, but that one of the central claims made by its proponents, in fact, is that autism, contrary to everything laid out in the diagnostic criteria (both then and now), is not a social (and social communication) disorder, but a movement disorder.
These days, though, when I hear someone say that autism is a movement disorder, I automatically see a red flag for FC support. And I’ve learned of a few others as well–all of which can, and do, warp the research and/or public statements of even the most accomplished and otherwise reliable academics.
- Having a non-verbal or semi-verbal autistic child and being unsatisfied with how much that child has been able to communicate via the standard, evidence-based therapies.
- Offering up lots of warped criticisms of the standard, evidence based therapies.
- Getting financial support from one or another deep-pocketed, pro-FC charitable foundations (themselves tied by kinship to non-verbal autistic children).
- Getting support from one or another autism self-advocacy organizations (I explore why autism self-advocates support Facilitated Communication here).
- Publishing research claiming that autistic people only appear to be unsocial
- Regularly conflating non-controversial statements like “autistic people do have empathy” and “autistic people do want to connect with others” with unsupported statements like “autistic people are just as good as non-autistic people at perspective taking and Theory of Mind tasks.”
This list has become, for me, a sort of diagnostic checklist–not necessarily for true belief in FC (that may be something that characterizes few people other than those who have chosen it for their children), but for practical entanglement in the FC Industrial Complex.