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The Farce Known as ‘FC’

A Magician in the Lab

James Randi

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

Photo Courtesy of the New York Times

I must address you about what’s known as “facilitated communication,” which involves what’s now most often called “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD), a subject that deeply concerns me. The first-ever fully identified and defined example of autism was only found in 1941.

This facilitated communication (FC) is simply a blatant stunt claimed to be a means of communicating with autistic children and adults afflicted by this complex neurological condition. ASD victims show widely varying degrees of impaired social interaction and communication—typically avoidance of eye-contact and strangely restricted and compulsively repetitive behavior. These symptoms first show up before a child is three years old and can become much stronger and more dangerous to that person’s well-being, though many mature into adulthood and survive—though with difficulty. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in forty-five persons in this country can be said to have at least some degree of autism—this is a figure that demands the very serious attention of the skeptical community!

Different authorities and quite un­qualified celebrity figures have argued variously that the mercury compounds once used as preservatives in some vaccines trigger it—specifically the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine—a notion now completely disproven but still embraced by some.

In March 1992, I was contacted by Dr. Anne M. Donnellan—then with the University of Wisconsin–Madison—who told me about a situation in which she was deeply involved. What little I already knew about FC indicated to me that she was very, very, misdirected and self-deceived.

I told her that the security of the children involved in this research must have priority and stated that if I became part of the investigation, that would have to be the primary consideration. I also said that I would gladly participate without any remuneration other than my basic costs of travel and accommodation.

She explained to me the difficulty of communication with the autistic children due to apraxia—the inability to perform simple, coordinated, physical actions even though the muscular ability is present. She told me that facilitated communication consists of the “facilitator” (an adult clinician or scientist) being in physical contact with the child while the child has access to an “augmentative device” (computer keyboard, typewriter, alphabet blocks, letter chart, etc.), which the child would be unable to manipulate sufficiently well to communicate. She said that certain children had shown remarkable abilities under FC, expressing ideas and concepts that had formerly been believed to be far beyond their abilities.

I told her that I felt the researchers might be under the influence of the Clever Hans Effect, in which the “facilitator,” in this case, might be—unknowingly—transmitting the sought-after responses to the child. This suggestion was emphatically denied, and I was told that every care had been taken to ensure that this was not possible. Her enthusiasm for this point was quite contagious, but I was immune to such an infection.

I’d already seen several videos of the facilitated communication procedure being used on autistic kids. The adult “facilitator” grasps the hand of the child, with the child’s index finger extended out over the keyboard of the computer. In almost every case, the child is looking away, uninvolved in the procedure, often babbling or screaming as the facilitator studies the keyboard and uses the subject’s finger as the tool with which he or she is typing! It is abundantly obvious that the child is not typing. No, the “facilitator” is typing, using that child’s finger!

However, another reported phenomenon was reported to me. Particularly in view of my own expertise, I was told that several of these children claimed that they were able to “read minds.” This was the primary reason that I had been contacted, it turned out, due to my extensive involvement in such investigations.

The autistics were able, I was told, to thereby communicate with one another, the main reason for Dr. Donnellan having asked me to visit and to advise the group, since as a result of my expertise as a magician I should be able to determine whether telepathy might be in operation. I went to Madison fully aware of what was happening there before I took on the task.

I agreed to participate in an investigation of both these situations, though—please note—I was regularly being encouraged not to examine the basic facilitated communication claim itself, but I’d already seen it in operation, and I doubted its efficacy. I was assured that all “that” had been firmly established. This task required that I visit Madison to observe the children in person. Believing that I could be of use to the project, I agreed.

Dr. Douglas Biklen of the University of Syracuse has promoted the FC procedure as valid, quite in error in my opinion. You may have seen the very definitive, powerful, video prepared and broadcast by PBS, very damning evidence against FC. In this documentary, the autistic subjects are looking away, quite unaware and disinterested in what is being asked of them. The fact that the supporters of the FC notion also saw this proves that they are ignoring the very strong evidence that the data originates with the “facilitator.” It does not come from the child at all. FC is not communication. It is blatant manipulation.

Dr. Biklen founded his university’s Facilitated Communication Institute in 1992. In August 2005, he was promoted to Dean of its School of Education, from which he retired in 2014, and this appointment was strongly criticized by the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health and by members of the Special Education research community. In 2012, Biklen received a United Nations prize that was awarded him because of his advocacy of FC, which—again—had been so very, very, thoroughly and effectively debunked as wishful thinking, bad science, and nonsense on the 1993 television special on PBS Frontline as well as through my personal investigation and experience with this manipulative deception the year before in 1992.

But please, you must remember the financial investment that Syracuse University still has in FC, via Dr. Biklen. It brings in millions annually from desperate parents and charities.

Dr. James T. Todd invited me to speak at Eastern Michigan University in 2005, and as a result he issued a direct challenge to the Autism Society over its sponsorship of a facilitated communication training workshop. Two of the attendees at that workshop, the Wendrows, were falsely accused—via facilitated communication—of rape of a child. They were arrested and jailed.

But I must wonder whether the Wendrows’ naive acceptance of FC and their previous vigorous denunciation of me remained in effect after they themselves experienced—firsthand—the damage that it can wreak. The Wendrows sued and got a $1.85 million settlement from the police. This situation was covered in a six-day front page story in the Detroit Free Press and on an ABC-TV 20/20 show.

As chief supporters of FC at the University of Syracuse and the force behind getting the MIT Media Lab to host Dr. Douglas Biklen’s annual Facilitated Communication “Summer Institute,” those communication experts and scientists at the MIT Media Lab ought to have been the first to reject FC. I’ve spoken there, several times, but it appears that some of its staff are true believers in FC, and some are significantly beholden to certain supporters of FC for financial support.

The MIT Media Lab endorsement of the facilitated communication farce is very discouraging and alarming to me. I just cannot understand how such a splendid facility can give approval to this dangerous—and useless—procedure. I always stood ready to design and conduct comprehensive tests of FC, and I still do, but apparently the money interests have been more successful, having spoken louder than rationality.

And—in closing—I will tell you that in my early correspondence with Dr. Donnellan I learned that one of the autistic children she said I would be meeting in Madison, six-year-old “Andrew,” had been banging his head on the floor, which is a not-uncommon practice of autistic children at the far end of the spectrum, and when the child got in front of the keyboard and was asked why he did the head-banging, he answered—by “assisted” typing, remember!—that his head hurt. Asked why his head hurt, he typed out—correctly spelled, they claim—“Because you need to operate on my hypothalamus.” This from a six-year-old child? And correctly spelled? Do these scientists actually believe this report?

Apparently, they do!

James Randi

James Randi's photo

James “The Amazing” Randi is a magician, investigator of psychic claims, author (Flim-Flam!, The Faith Healers, The Mask of Nostradamus, The Magic of Uri Geller), and the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He was a founding fellow of CSICOP. This article is based on a special presentation on investigating psychics he gave at the Fifth World Skeptics Congress, Abano Terme, Italy, October 8—10, 2004.