A Review of the Movie Spellers: a Documercial for Spelling to Communicate

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.” Stephen Hawking.

Thousands of nonspeakers around the world are spelling fluently on letterboards and keyboards. They are graduating from regular high schools and colleges. They have had their lives and dreams returned to them. And yet millions remain underestimated and misunderstood. It’s time to start listening.

These are, respectively, the opening and closing title cards of the new movie Spellers, a pro-FC documentary directed by Pat R. Notaro, III and based loosely on J.B. Handley’s Underestimated: An Autism Miracle. (See our review here). The movie’s trailer also includes this quote:

There’s never any doubt in my mind when someone walks into my room that they can and will spell for me. That they can and do want to learn.

The underlying message: all non-speakers have the capacity to spell out sophisticated messages.

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Should we be teaching grammar rules to native speakers?

Here are some thoughts, excerpted from one of my vanished Out in Left Field posts, on K12 writing instruction, which I’ve been thinking about once again.

What seems to predominate in K12 is neither:

  • useful, explicit grammar instruction that facilitates the understanding of style rules (dangling modifiers, parallel structures), foreign language grammar, and complex sentences in English


  • opportunities for implicit learning that come from expert feedback on multiple drafts.

In terms of writing, the results of this are evident in student papers, in written instructions, in promotional materials, and even in published articles and their associated headlines.

What keeps most of us complacent about this are two phenomena

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A final post on autism-related challenges that are supposed to explain away our concerns about FC: motor control, echolalia, and word retrieval

In two of my recent posts, I discussed what we know about motor difficulties, intentional control difficulties, and apraxia in autism. As we saw, such difficulties neither justify the need for FC, nor explain why facilitated individuals (a) sometimes pronounce words that are at odds with their facilitated typing and (b) demonstrate cognitive skills during neuropsychological evaluations that are well below the cognitive skills they show when they’re being facilitated.

To recap:

  • There is no empirical evidence that the motor difficulties in autism include difficulties with pointing.
  • Language assessments that prompt autistic individuals with motor difficulties to point to things, therefore, do not underestimate their receptive language skills.
  • Apraxia of speech (AOS) cannot be diagnosed in minimal speakers: AOS involves difficulty consistently producing combinations of vowels and consonants, and the smaller a child’s consonant and vowel repertoire, the harder it is to detect these difficulties and inconsistencies.
  • There is no evidence of a “motor disinhibition” problem in autism (or in any other condition) that causes people to point to item A when they want to point to item B, to say the word “yes” when they intend to say “no”, to throw random objects instead of cleaning up, or to follow a multi-step procedure unless they type it out first.
  • In autism, gross motor problems are about as prevalent as fine motor problems, so converting a fine motor task into a gross motor task does not, as a general rule, result in a more accessible, autism-friendly task.
  • Pointing is fine motor, not gross motor.

In this post, I’ll say one more thing pertaining to motor difficulties, and then I’ll turn to two other autism-related challenges that are supposed to explain away some of the concerns about FC: echolalia and word-retrieval difficulties.

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Do facilitated individuals have apraxia issues that explain away the concerns about FC?

(Cross-posted at FacilitatedCommunication.org).

In my last post I wrote about motor difficulties in autism and argued that these challenges, however widespread they may be, do not explain away the myriad empirical problems with facilitated communication. In this follow-up post I’d like to zero in on one particular motor control issue: motor planning, AKA apraxia. My reasons are twofold. First, among the various actual and purported motor difficulties in autism, apraxia is the one most often cited by FC proponents.  Second, one of the most common critiques levied by FC proponents against FC critics is that we don’t understand apraxia and how it validates FC.

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Do facilitated individuals have motor difficulties that explain away the concerns about FC?

(Cross-posted at FacilitatedCommunication.org).

Ever since Douglas Biklen began promoting facilitated communication in the 1990s, one of his central claims—and one of the central claims of other FC proponents—has been that autistic individuals have difficulty controlling their bodies. This, purportedly, includes difficulties with motor control and motor planning (e.g., with ten-finger typing) and with what I’ll call “intentional control”: the ability to inhibit one’s body from carrying out an unintended goal (e.g., inhibiting the urge to flap one’s hands or echo a favorite phrase) that would interfere with an intended goal (e.g., intentional communication).

The term “intentional control”, I should note, is my own coinage. It’s a workaround for the fact that proponents haven’t given us a precise term for the phenomenon in question. Sometimes they call it “praxis”—and then use “apraxia” for significantly impaired “praxis”. But, outside the FC world, “praxis” is consistently defined as motor planning: planning out a combination or series of motor movements. And, outside the FC world, “apraxia”—whether speech apraxia (difficulty making intended speech sounds), oromotor apraxia (difficulty with other oral movements like chewing and swallowing), or more general apraxia (difficulty performing intended or requested motor sequences like cutting out a requested shape)—is consistently defined as a significant difficulty with motor planning. That is, praxis/apraxia apply to situations where what’s at issue is whether someone has the motor planning skills to accurately carry out certain physical goals/commands (e.g., cutting out a triangle or saying the word “lickety-split”). Praxis/apraxia do not apply when what’s at issue is whether someone can inhibit other physical goals/urges (e.g., flapping their hands or echoing the word “popcorn”) that interfere with their primary goal (e.g., saying “thank you”).

So how does FC fit into all this?

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What does it take to sustain the illusion: addendum

I forgot about social pressure!

That is, how many people claim that they still believe something either because it’s embarrassing to admit they were wrong, or because doing so means weakening their ties to the social networks that nurtured and sustained their beliefs in the first place–and losing a lot of friends in the process?

Put another way, for any given difficult-to-sustain belief, how many apparent believers are merely pretending?

Mysterious disappearances in the world of FC: What does it take to sustain the illusion?

Cross posted at FacilitatedCommunication.org.

A couple of weeks ago, Autism Science Foundation founder Alison Singer posted on Twitter a video of an exchange she had with Cure Autism Now founder Jonathan Shestack. The clip opens with a question from Singer:

You’ve been away from the autism advocacy world for some years, but what’s your feeling about how the definition of autism spectrum disorder has changed?

Singer was alluding to the expansion of the autism spectrum to include what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome. This expansion assigns people with a range of speaking and writing abilities—some fully fluent, others completely minimally verbal—to the same diagnostic category. Back in 1995, when Shestack and his wife, Portia Iversen, founded Cure Autism Now (now Autism Speaks), autism and Asperger’s were distinct diagnoses.

Shestack, answering Singer’s question, implicitly raises another:

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Word prediction on steroids and the authorship questions it raises

I’ve been thinking lately about the future of word prediction (and phrase and sentence prediction). We’re at a point now where, without the user typing a single letter, but instead just selecting predicted words, syntactically and semantically coherent messages can emerge. This is obviously a huge boon for anyone who needs help typing and actually knows the meanings of the predicted words and what they want to say with them.

But what about those who don’t? What about all those individuals with autism who use AAC not because they have problems with motor control, but because they have problems with language? How do we know that someone isn’t simply selecting words at random that they don’t understand? Worse, given how text-prediction software can adapt to the styles and content of particular users, how do we know that the AI hasn’t been trained through earlier sessions that were mediated through on or another form of facilitated communication to output messages that originated with a facilitator—even when that person is no longer in the room?

The answer, as with the more standard, immediate cases of FC, is message-passing testing.

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The NIH falls for FC: How did this happen and is it reversible?

Some six weeks ago, the National Institutes of Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD) sponsored a conference entitled “Minimally Verbal/Non-Speaking Individuals With Autism: Research Directions for Interventions to Promote Language and Communication.” The NIDCD is a member of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and so is funded by Congress. All of us citizens and taxpayers, therefore, should be concerned by the fact that this event served—albeit only in part, and mostly indirectly—to promote facilitated communication. It did so primarily by showcasing two “non-speaking” autistic individuals who type out grammatically well-formed, syntactically sophisticated, vocabulary-rich messages on keyboards: messages that show no evidence of the language learning impairments associated with non-speaking autism.

Once the conference’s program became available, several autism experts expressed concern that an FC user was listed as a panelist, that the event featured “S2C proponent Vikram Jaswal presenting a flawed study of S2C users”, that the NIH was “giving credence to FC”, and that the only other representative of non-speaking autism was someone who had told the world, years ago, “I can talk. I can even have a conversation with you.”

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ChatGPT on who we are

Who is Catherine Johnson?

Catherine Johnson is a British playwright, screenwriter, and novelist. She was born on October 14, 1957, in London, England. Johnson is best known for her work as the writer of the book for the hit stage musical “Mamma Mia!” which features the music of Swedish pop group ABBA. The musical has been a huge commercial success, with productions all over the world, as well as a film adaptation released in 2008.

In addition to her work on “Mamma Mia!”, Johnson has written a number of other plays, including “Shang-a-Lang,” “Little Baby Nothing,” and “Rag Doll.” She has also written several books for children and young adults, including “The Dying Game,” “Sawbones,” and “The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo.”

Johnson has been nominated for several awards for her work in both theatre and literature, and has won several, including the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play for “Not Quite Gospel” in 1993, and the U.K. Theatre Award for Best Musical Production for “Mamma Mia!” in 2000.

Who is Catherine Johnson, Temple Grandin’s co-author?

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What authorship tests have shown us about RPM and S2C

For outside observers, possibly the biggest problem with Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and Spelling to Communicate (S2C) is that practitioners unanimously resist validity testing. This, quite naturally, raises questions. Why is not one single practitioner or family member concerned and/or curious enough about authorship and communication rights to seek out rigorous authorship testing—even with neutral investigators they don’t consider antagonistic? Why is not one single RPMed/S2Ced typer interested in proving definitively to the general public that it’s really him/her/them typing?

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Most of the messages generated by facilitated communication are about as interesting as ChatGPT. They consist largely of abstract words and earnest bromides. And they lack the analogies, similes, metaphors, and concrete examples that might put flesh on abstract ideas.

But unlike ChatGPT, the authors of facilitated messages are generally human. And humans are perhaps (perhaps!) more susceptible to quirky memes than ChatGPT is. One meme that has insinuated itself into the messages generated (mostly unwittingly) by facilitators is that autistic individuals see the world through a kind of fragmented synesthesia. Another is an idiosyncratic use of certain adverbs –particularly “greatly.”

As far as I can tell, the odd use of “greatly”, etc., originates with the person facilitating this individual, where it occurs with great frequency, for example:

I greatly decided to use their questions as the basis for this piece.

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