Facilitated Communication

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 1:59 PM | Filed under

Here's a news story that aired yesterday on MSNBC, about Rom Houben, who awoke from what doctors thought was a coma; however, he allegedly may have been conscious but paralyzed the entire time.


An important element of this story is that they are using what is called facilitated communication for Houben to correspond. Facilitated communication is a dubious practice. It was first used in the 1970s, designed to to help autistic children communicate. A facilitator would support a child’s hands over a computer keyboard, and the claim was that the facilitator was there just to keep the child's hands above the keyboard—the child would be the one typing the messages. Some of these messages contained terrible things, including reports of sexual abuses occurring in the home, and many of these children were separated from their families because of this.

However, some blinded tests were performed to see what was going on. In these tests, the facilitator and child wore headphones, and they were asked questions. Sometimes, they each got a different question, but the messages obtained through the facilitated communication were always answers to the question the facilitator was asked, and not answers to the child's question. This revealed that it was the facilitators who were subconsciously cueing the children to type specific messages.

The same kind of effect could be happening with this story. Maybe not—I can't possibly know for sure, but in the video, it's the facilitator who's looking at the screen; Houben doesn't even seem to be looking at it very often. Arguments revolving around this case might be used in arguments about a patient's right to live or die, so I hope they ask Houben these same questions again, but with a properly blinded facilitator the second time.

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Mook, Douglas. "The Cautionary Tale of Clever Hans." Classic experiments in psychology. 2004: p.221-224. University of Washington Electronic Reserves.

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