Autism can be a devastating affliction. Children suffering from it seem to be totally cut off from the outside, unable to communicate with their siblings and parents. As a parent myself, I can only imagine how awful it must be to have a child with autism.
However, situations like this bring the quacks, the con-artists, and the anti-scientists out in droves. I won't go into the quackery involving MMR vaccines and autism, except to point you to Orac's blog, where he takes on such nonsense.
Another recent development in autism care is the use of so-called "facilitated communication". In such a practice, the autistic child is given a computer keyboard, and with the help of someone to support their hand -- the "facilitator" -- the child is, in many cases, seen to type out simple messages. It must seem like a miracle to parents, to be able to finally communicate with a child they love so desperately.
However, there is a problem-- how do you know if the child is actually typing the message, or it's just the facilitator guiding the child's hand? It's well known that people can use their hands -- consciously or without their knowing -- to guide an object. That's how Ouija boards "work", for example. Is the facilitator supporting the autistic child's hand, or is it guiding it?
Unfortunately, when tested carefully, facilitated communication has been shown to be the latter. It doesn't work. It may appear to work, but what is happening is that the facilitator, willingly or not, is pushing the hand to type out the messages.
This is the absolute worst kind of skepticism to have to use: it leads to yet another crushing blow to loving parents who would do anything to talk to their child. How do you break the news to them that what they thought were their child's responses were in reality no such thing?
Skeptics are not monsters. We just want the truth, and sometimes the truth is very, very difficult.
But it's just been made harder by Time magazine, which has a cover story about autism and facilitated communication. I heard about it through James Randi, who sent out an email. Here it is in its entirety:
Incredible! That TIME Magazine could run a COVER STORY on the latest witchcraft, endorsing the nonsense that Douglas Biklen and others have espoused as real medicine, is a tragedy. It was bad enough that in the past they featured Americaâ€™s second-most-famous quack, Andrew Weil, on TWO covers. Now they have glorified this cruel, pseudoscientific notion called â€œfacilitated communicationâ€ [FC] at the expense of those afflicted with autism â€“ and their families â€“ who will accept what TIME says as the truth.
It is NOT. Itâ€™s a damnable lie. â€œFacilitated Communicationâ€ does NOT work. It takes the victims and their families for a brief joyride, then they find out that theyâ€™ve been conned, swindled, lied to. Thank you, Syracuse University, for cultivating this vicious joke, and for supporting Biklen and his team of goons who have ruined the lives of so many innocent people by giving them hope, showing them faked demos, and then walking away from those devastated victims.
No, Iâ€™m not a doctor, but I know my subject â€“ very well. I offer the million-dollar prize of this Foundation â€“ as Iâ€™ve offered it in past years â€“ to ANYONE who can demonstrate that FC works on autism victims who are otherwise unable to communicate with the outside world. These people will not step forward and accept that challenge.
On October 19, 1993, PBSâ€™s Frontline program was â€œPrisoners of Silence,â€ which demonstrated clearly â€“ as I did in Madison, Wisconsin, years before â€“ that FC is unscientific, quackery, and a farce. TIME seems to be unaware of that fact, or has chosen to ignore it in order to run this cruel story.
TIME must answer for this dreadful attack on rationality and medical science.
See www.randi.org/jr/080505potential.html#16 and www.randi.org/jr/200511/111105derek.html#i7. Also, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/transcripts/1202.html. This is hard evidence that the quacks â€“ and TIME Magazine â€“ cannot deny.
As in many cases when dealing with such things, this is not my field, so I must rely on the work of others. Randi has done outstanding work in such things, and the links at the bottom of his article will show you just how many professional organizations recommend against the use of facilitated communication.
Being a skeptic means having to face some hard, harsh realities. The truth can, sometimes, be no fun at all, but in reality it's all we have.