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National Down Syndrome Society Promotes Communication Pseudoscience

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.

Karyotype of a person with Down syndrome showing three copies of chromosome 21. (Source: Wikipedia)

On January 10, 2019, the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) offered a free public webinar on facilitated communication (FC), a thoroughly discredited communication method most often used with people who have autism. The webinar, “Facilitated Communication and Down Syndrome,” was sponsored by NDSS’s Inclusive Education Taskforce and was led by Christy Ashby, PhD, director of the Institute on Communication Inclusion—formerly known as the Facilitated Communication Institute— at Syracuse University.

Facilitated Communication

As readers of this column will recall (Vyse 2018), FC is based on the theory that many people with profound language deficits suffer from a physical problem—an inability to produce the sounds for speech or the movements required for writing or typing—but are not cognitively impaired. According to this theory, these individuals can’t get their ideas out of their broken bodies. FC supporters claim this problem can be solved by having another person—a facilitator—hold the student’s hand or arm and guide it over a keyboard. If the facilitator could just steady the nonspeaking person’s hand, the intelligence hidden within could emerge. In the early 1990s, FC spread rapidly, and with the help of their facilitators, many previously nonspeaking people began writing poetry and performing at grade level in school. Some of them even went on to attend college accompanied by their facilitators.

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