A footnote about academics who support Facilitated Communication

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Offering up lots of warped criticisms of the standard, evidence based therapies.
  3. Getting financial support from one or another deep-pocketed, pro-FC charitable foundations (themselves tied by kinship to non-verbal autistic children).
  4. Getting support from one or another autism self-advocacy organizations (I explore why autism self-advocates support Facilitated Communication here).
  5. Publishing research claiming that autistic people only appear to be unsocial
  6. 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.

I made a *HUGE MISTAKE* the other week!

I had gotten the impression that a fatally-flawed Eye Tracking study I blogged about below–the one written by Dan Willingham’s colleague at UVA that supposedly showed support for a form of facilitated communication in autism–was published in the prestigious journal Nature.

It turns out this article was instead published in a completely different publication under the Nature.com umbrella: a publication called “Scientific Reports.”

I found this out when I tried to submit a letter to Nature. Nature wrote back saying that they don’t accept letters about articles in publications other than Nature. It took me a while to figure out that there are three separate entities all involving the name Nature.

There’s Nature.com the journal; Nature.com the publisher of dozens of distinct journals, and Nature.com > Scientific Reports.

And, as it turns out, there are lots of differences between Nature and Scientific Reports. Scientific Reports accepts 56% of submissions; Nature accepts 8%. Scientific Reports charges authors thousands of dollars to publish ($5380 for US authors), and allows them input on who should and shouldn’t review their work.

Scientific Reports has a history of retractions, including, so far in 2020, of a paper claiming the sun causes global warming, one claiming that cell-phone-induced neck-bending causes people to grow horns, and one that was plagiarized from the BA thesis of a Hungarian mathematician.

I’m not sure how much Scientific Reports charges to publish letters to the editor, so as far as the letter I mistakenly wrote to Nature (as in the journal Nature) goes, I’ll do what I did with the one I wrote to the Chicago Tribune on its pro- Rapid Prompting Method piece from early January, which also went unpublished, and post it publicly

To the Editors,

I’m writing with concerns about your article “Eye-tracking reveals agency in assisted autistic communication” (Jaswal, V.K., Wayne, A. & Golino, H. Sci Rep 10, 7882 (2020).

One concern relates to the authors’ justifications for testing the agency of what they call “assisted communication” indirectly, via eye movements, rather than directly, via a message-passing test—the gold standard for establishing authorship.

In a message-passing test, the researcher prompts the subject and/or asks him a question while the assistant, or facilitator, is out of the room. The facilitator then returns and facilitates the subject’s response. If the response is appropriate, message-passing has succeeded.

The authors suggest that, in the case of non-speaking children, message-passing may fail for reasons that have nothing to do with agency. Their claim:

“Children who can talk receive years of prompting and feedback from adults on how to report information their interlocutor does not know, the essence of a message passing test.”

There are several problems with this statement. First, message-passing involves information that is unknown to the facilitator, not to the interlocutor (the researcher). Second, the statement suggests that typical three-year-olds don’t yet know how to talk with people about things that happened while they were out of the room. Third, as the study itself reports, while no participant “was reported to be able to have a ‘to and fro’ spoken conversation involving turn-taking or building on what a conversational partner had said earlier,” all but one “was reported to be able to speak using short phrases or sentences.” (What would cause these individuals to become more conversational when typing on a letter board with an index finger is left unexplored).

My other concern is the letter board, which could have been placed on a stationary stand, but instead is held up by the assistant. As we see in the article’s videos, the board shifts around significantly during typing.

A shifting board makes it hard to draw reliable conclusions about intentional eye fixations or about intentional letter selection—regardless of how high tech the head-mounted eye tracker and video processing software are.

Of course, as far as the authors go, if what you’re after is publicity for, say, an un-disclosed for-profit operation, all that matters is that you get the word out to lots of potential customers before you get scrutinized by actual peer review and ultimately retracted. It could be that spending over $5000 dollars to promote Rapid Prompting Method is a very worthwhile investment.

Especially given how much money desperate parents are willing to pay for anything that appears to boost the communicative potential of their autistic children to the degree promised by RPM.

Facilitating communication with Dan Willingham

I’ve long respected Dan Willingham’s work, but I’m concerned about a study he tweeted favorably about on twitter this week.


I and others tweeted some criticisms, and Dan posted a rebuttal on his blog. In this post, which I’ll also share on twitter, I’m going to respond, point by point, to that rebuttal.

First, a few notes about my respect for Dan and his work. When his first book came out, I gave it a 5-star review on Amazon; I linked to an article of his on phonics here just 3 months ago; and I’ve had cordial, even friendly, exchanges with him over the years.

However, the study Dan cited has raised red flags for me. Its object of investigation—Rapid Prompting Method—is similar to a discredited method called “Facilitated Communication” (FC). Both have been used with minimally-verbal children with autism, and both are things I’ve blogged about, most recently here.

RPM has never undergone the rigorous testing that FC has, and a number of us, long familiar with the litany of non-rigorous tests, anecdotes, and unsubstantiated claims that purportedly support RPM, took a look at who was involved in this study and immediately had concerns.

One concern: the conflicts of interest of the first author, Vikram Jaswal. First, there’s his long-time collaboration with the person who runs the clinic, whose teaching method (a form of RPM) the study investigated and drew favorable conclusions about. Second, there’s the fact that this method is used with Jaswal’s autistic daughter. From an article in the Washington Post:


Another concern: Jaswal’s collaborator, whom various indicators suggest was also the assistant overseeing the experiment. She–I’ll avoid using her name–has a history of claiming credentials she did not have, including in her dealings with paying clients: dealings relevant to the questions addressed by the experiment.

Unimpressed with our remarks, Dan ultimately tweeted:


Soon a number of threads spun out containing discussions of the study’s methodology and data, including this one from @24shaz. @angelrabanas analyzed one video in detail and posted her analysis on YouTube.

So I pinged Dan, and a day or two later he notified us that that he’d put up a post on his blog in response entitled “Responding to a Study You Just KNOW Is Wrong.”

Dan begins his post with a discussion of the learning styles controversy, and how educators who think they are “in the know” will pounce “with glee” on anyone who mentions learning styles. He goes on to say:


This made me wonder whether any of us had said anything bullying or snobbish about Jaswal et al or their studies. So I went through the various threads, and the only things I found that I thought might possibly be interpreted as snobbish or bullying were these:


Anyway, Dan goes on to explain how if you uncritically dismiss disproven theories you might miss new developments. As an example of a new development that he has not missed, Dan cites new research on learning styles theory and notes that his views have changed as a result.

I’m familiar with Dan’s skepticism about learning styles, and so I was intrigued to hear he’d changed his mind. I followed the link he gave to his new views, read through to the conclusion, and this is what I found:


But anyway, back to Dan’s blog post. Dan next turns to Jaswal et al’s paper:


Missing from this discussion is the most likely way that cuing could occur: not through a distinct cue for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, but through the movement by the facilitator of the letter board. Such movement is a regular occurrence in videos of RPM, including those that are included in this study.

In particular, the facilitator may (unwittingly) shift the letter board such that a particular letter approaches the subject’s finger and/or enters the path of his/her eye gaze. To pick up on such cues, the subject does not look up at the assistant.

A moving letter board also makes it hard to draw reliable conclusions about intentional eye fixations or about typing rhythm.

Anyway, moving on, Dan turns to some of our concerns. Noting (correctly) that I mischaracterized Jaswal’s relationship to something called “The Tribes” (thus mischaracterizing the precise nature of Jaswal’s collaboration with clinic’s director), he turns to a tweet by Jason Travers, observing that:


Dan leaves it at that. But Jason is making an important point. Yes, he’s asking for a different experiment, but not one that differs in the ultimate questions being explored (i.e., the authorship of the messages). Rather, Jason is asking for an experiment that addresses these same questions using a more rigorous, well-established methodology: one where the possibility of facilitator influence is eliminated, as it is in a message passing test.

Jaswal et al attempt to explain why they think message-passing tests are problematic, making some claims that anyone with any background in language acquisition and linguistic pragmatics would instantly recognize as absurd:


Years of prompting and feedback are needed before children are able to convey new information? Tell that to the parent of a young toddler! Then there’s the fact that all of the participants, although they’re called “nonspeaking,” can talk—just not fluently and interactively.


What would cause these kids to be more fluent and interactive when typing on a letter board with an index finger? That is a question that Jaswal et al leave unexplained.

Even if Jaswal et al had good reasons for rejecting message passing, they’d still need to explain why they didn’t take other influence-reducing steps–like blindfolding the assistant and/or placing the alphabet board on a stationary stand. Such options are never even mentioned.

Dan does not discuss these huge design flaws. Nor does he address our concerns about how a moving board (1) provides cues that don’t involve subjects looking up at the assistant and (2) seriously warps the eye gaze results. Nor does he address various concerns we had about how the data was coded.

Instead, having dispensed with Jason, Dan then reacts to two tweets that, he grants, do address the data and its methods.


I’ve reviewed these and other tweets of @24shaz and @angelrabanas re the videos, and as far as I can tell, Dan’s reaction here is a non sequitur that does not rebut their critiques. Doing that convincingly would require quite a bit more discussion.

Dan then turns to a tweet I posted:


So I went back to the methods section to see if I had missed something:


There’s nothing here, so far as I can tell, that’s relevant to the issue of oral cues being delivered ahead of letter selection. Nor does this issue come up anywhere else in the methods section.

Having dispensed with the above tweets, Dan turns to one regarding the study’s small sample size and explains how these are routine in neuropsychology. He does not address concerns about how the subjects were non-randomly selected–they were hand-picked by the clinic–or about the grounds for eliminating one of the subjects.

Dan then dispenses with the rest of our tweets, among them many more that focused on methodology and data (and a mysteriously missing video) with this:


Alluding to his opening remarks, Dan then contrasts his take on our tweets with his take on his openness to revising his views on learning styles.


He goes on to say that people would be best advised to just ignore studies that they aren’t going to bother to read and that are outside their areas of expertise:


Regarding the second point, on expertise, what’s most relevant here, as far as our critiques go, is the expertise involved in evaluating RPM and FC videos for signs of manipulation. Some of us have spent many hours doing this—perhaps more hours than this paper’s authors, reviewers and advisors have.

Regarding the first point, about bothering to read things, the same applies to Dan himself. If he has the feeling that a conclusion (say one regarding Jaswal’s paper) is probably wrong, but doesn’t want to take the time to properly engage with the arguments, he might be better off ignoring it.

Incidentally, if Dan has a feeling that Jaswal’s critics are probably wrong, he has left out one possible reason why: he and Jaswal are colleagues in the same department at UVA, and Dan is mentioned in the paper’s acknowledgements:


Dan concludes with this:


If Dan were to inform himself about the harsh and abusive practices in both FC and RPM (evident in some of the videos of kids who are subjected to it), and about the linguistic and educational opportunity costs that they potentially impose, and about the evidence of greed and malice within the FC/RPM industrial complex, he might hesitate to interpret our passionate concern as nothing more than righteous indignation.

Facilitating Un-facilitated Communication in Autism

My two hour talk on this charged topic is going live at 5:00 PM EST today, available any time after that:


There’ll be a live q & a on Monday, and I’m hoping someone will bring up a paper, just published in Nature of all places, that appears to provide empirical support for a particular type of facilitated communication:


I’ve had an… interesting exchange with Dan Willingham on twitter about paper:


A stewardess’s folk remedy

A few years ago, one of my sisters talked to a stewardess about viruses on planes. 

The stewardess said she and her colleagues fended off viral infections by using a cue tip Q-TIP (thank you, gasstationwithoutpumps!) to apply Ayr Saline Nasal Gel with Soothing Aloe to their nasal passages. My sister has been using that advice for flights ever since.

Our urgent care center told Ed that saline gels help prevent nose bleeds. I have no idea whether it also creates a barrier to viruses–or, if it does, whether it does so for COVID 19 specifically.

But I’m passing it along.

Duolingo progress report

This is pretty amazing, I think.

I now have a 2-year streak on Duolingo; plus I worked my way through the entire Lingvist French sequence.

I’m also 2000 words into a Memrise French vocabulary list and have done a few of the regular French lessons.

I can now read this tweet efficiently, without looking anything up:

For a while now, I’ve been studying both French and Spanish every day, so we’ll see how that goes. (Spanish is the language I studied when I was young — don’t want to “lose” it while I’m studying French…)

Nearly all of my progress comes from language apps. I’ve done a bit of reading — two graphic novels and some Twitter posts.

I’ve also, at times, delved into grammar explanations, primarily on French Today and Lawless French.

But basically I owe my progress to Duolingo & Memrise, both of which use “forced-choice” information-integration learning.

More homeschooling, please

I’ve been reading tweets about school closings as a means of containing epidemics. Turns out they’re highly effective.

Presumably, more homeschooling ought to mean slower contagion of whatever is going around. Another point in its favor!

Speaking of kids and contagion, my brother-in-law, who has been taking care of his new granddaughter one day a week, tells us he’s been chronically sick ever since his daughter went back to work. His granddaughter spends two or three days a week in daycare, and he gets every bug the children get.

This thread is good, too.

News you can use, Coronavirus edition

This week I went to the hospital (doctor appointment), visited a former colleague at the international ESL school close to my house (new group of foreign nationals arrives each week), then went to a jazz club Friday night (new germs, close quarters). 

Today I’m sneezing. 

Normally this would not be blogworthy information, but under the circumstances I’m using it as a peg to report that our household is planning to fend off Coronavirus using the powdered Vitamin C we take to deal with colds and flu. 

I became a believer in the anti-viral properties of Vitamin C three years ago, when my doctor treated my case of shingles with intravenous C. 

If I had my druthers I would be mainlining C for the next several months. Failing that I’m using BulkSupplements’ powdered C because I’m pretty sure powder is easier to absorb than a hard tablet. I can’t prove that, but I did become deathly ill in Paris two summers ago when Ed packed capsules instead of powder. Plus you can put powdered C in a bottle of water and drink it all day, which Ed has been doing since news of COVID-19 broke. I need to start doing the same. [6/22/2020 UPDATE: I didn’t.]

My former colleague at the ESL school told me a story re Vitamin C. 

A couple of months ago the director asked her to teach another class on top of the 3-class load she was already carrying.

When she said “yes,” he said: “Start taking Vitamin C now.”

Postcript: So far I’m turning to Marc Lipsitch for Coronavirus info & updates: Will COVID-19 go away on its own in warmer weather?

What is 2%?

I’m back in touch with Carolyn Johnston! (Carolyn and I started the original Kitchen Table Math together.)

Carolyn used to write about the fraction issue in math education. When they hit fractions, students fall off the math cliff.

(How well do I remember the summer after C’s 8th grade year, or maybe it was the summer before, when we discovered he couldn’t figure a 10% tip!)

I remember Carolyn talking about nursing students who had washed out of their programs because they couldn’t do fractions.

So I thought of her yesterday when I saw this:

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Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part V

At this point, with five recent SWI critiques from Greg Ashman, writing yet one more myself feels like beating a dead horse. In terms of SWI publications, much of Ashman’s criticism has focused on a paper that has come out since I started this series: Bowers’ recent paper “Reconsidering the Evidence That Systematic Phonics Is More Effective Than Alternative Methods of Reading Instruction“. Ashman’s criticisms are quite thorough, and I have nothing to add to them.

Instead, I’ll return to the older Devonshire et al (2013) paper—a paper that discusses efficacy data that supposedly favors SWI over phonics. This paper compares 1st and 2nd graders who spent 6 weeks exposed to 15-25 minutes daily of SWI as opposed to those got “standard classroom” phonics instruction, and finds that the SWI intervention improves word reading scores. While this is reasonable grounds for further investigation, it’s far from the kind of study needed to justify a replacement of systematic phonics with SWI. For one thing, all of the students in the study received phonics instruction in addition to SWI. For another, the comparison involved an instructional time frame of only 6 weeks. Finally, the “standard classroom” phonics being compared to SWI can mean just about anything, including watered-down, unsystematic phonics instruction of the sort that has failed many kids over many years.

To answer the question of whether systematic phonics should be replaced with SWI, Continue reading

Is Structured Word Inquiry the answer to America’s reading woes? Part IV

When I left off last November, I ended Part III of this series with this note:

When it comes to the viability of SWI, particularly for novice readers encountering unfamiliar printed words, the devil is in the details. Stay tuned for part IV.

So how does SWI teach basic written words to novice readers? How does it teach a reader who is encountering the word “cat” for the first time in print how to sound it out?

The guiding principles of SWI, according to Pete Bowers, suggest that sounding out a word is, in fact, not a good way to identify it.

Rather, students should start by looking at the word’s meaning and morphological components.


But if you’ve never seen the word in writing before, how do you know what it means or how it’s built? And how does figuring out how it’s built get you anywhere in the case of basic words like “cat” that are built out of a single morpheme?

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And now, a mini-lesson in hard-core neo-neurodiversity

So what does a group of highly verbal people who identify as autistic have to do with facilitated communication—and why, as I suggested in an earlier post, do they support it?

The group of highly verbal people I have in mind identify not only as autistic, but also as members of a movement called “Neurodiversity.”

While this movement proclaims to be primarily about advocating for full acceptance of the gamut of neurological differences that constitute humanity, it has, over the years, narrowed down to a much more rigid ethos—an ethos that I’ve learned a fair amount about in a half-year of sometimes heated interactions on Twitter.

To appreciate why today’s hardcore neo-Neurodiversity advocates support facilitated communication, we need to begin by deconstructing this ethos. Here are its central claims:

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But first, an aside about support for Facilitated Communication in academia

In my last post, I mentioned several constituencies that have kept Facilitated Communication, for all its definitive debunkings, alive and well: hopeful parents, duped therapists, and well-intentioned philanthropists enriching unscrupulous institutes and their various gurus. I then ended with a teaser about a fourth constituency that has helped enable what is actually a major FC comeback: highly verbal adults who identify as autistic. But before I address their dogs in this fight, I need to showcase one more player that, until emailing with psychology professor James Todd, I’d kind of forgotten about: namely, academia.

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While the counter-evidence mounts, Facilitated Communication makes a comeback

Continuing from where we left off, Facilitated Communication’s lack of credibility is multi-faceted.

As we saw in my last post, the messages that FC typically generates are highly suspect. With their often perfect spelling, sophisticated vocabulary, figurative phrasing, bland messages, and stilted tone, they don’t sound like they’re coming from the young kids and teenagers being “facilitated”–especially as these particular individuals seem to lack the Joint Attention behaviors necessary for picking up even the most basic vocabulary.

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