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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Nov/Dec 2018 > Autism Wars: Science Strikes Back

Autism Wars: Science Strikes Back

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In the field of autism treatment, the forces for science and evidence have won a few battles and lost a Unfortunately, some of the most recent victories have been on the side of pseudoscientific and fad therapies— but a new army of researchers, practitioners, and advocates is fighting back.

Twenty years ago, it looked like facilitated communication (FC), a popular pseudoscientific treatment for autism, was dead. Proponents had suggested that many people with autism were trapped inside broken bodies. Autism was not a cognitive problem but instead a physical one. Inside these non-speaking people were intelligent, expressive minds, and if someone—a facilitator— just steadied their hands over a keyboard, FC could unlock the thoughts and feelings of the person within. Suddenly, with the help of their facilitators, people who were previously unable to speak were writing books and poems and going off to college. The promise of FC was so miraculous that it spread like wildfire.

But in the early 1990s, the first empirical tests of the technique began to appear, and the results were devastating. In virtually every case, controlled studies revealed that the facilitator—the autistic person’s helper—was doing the typing, not the person with autism. It was a Ouija board–like phenomenon. The facilitators appeared to be entirely unaware that they were the authors of the words on the screen.

This research was a substantial blow to the proponents of FC, and a 1993 PBS Frontline episode, “Prisoners of Silence” (Palfreman 1993), was particularly effective in discrediting the technique. Major professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association issued policy statements against the use of FC, and teachers and therapists went back to using more validated methods of educating people with autism. So by the mid-1990s, it looked like the FC controversy was over, and science had won. Unfortunately, the story did not end there.

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