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January 20, 2013

Slate: Is the neurodiversity movement misrepresenting autism?

(Continued)

The diagnoses of Sue Rubin, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, on the other hand, have never been questioned. Rubin, featured in the Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary "Autism Is a World," was considered severely intellectually disabled for most of her childhood, with a tested IQ of 29. Bissonnette and Thresher star in the 2011 film "Wretches and Jabberers"; Bissonnette was institutionalized into his 20s, while Thresher grew up in special-ed classes. Although all three are capable of speaking simple words or phrases, their lives were transformed when they were introduced to Facilitated Communication (FC), a method of supported typing. A facilitator holds the user at the wrist, elbow, or shoulder, as is the case for Thresher and Bissonnette, or the facilitator may hold the keyboard in place, as is the case for Rubin. With this help, all three produce sophisticated written work that has enabled Rubin to attend college and Thresher to serve on two state-level disability committees in Vermont, where he lives.

However, FC has been exhaustively studied since Douglas Biklen (the producer, incidentally, of Wretches and Jabberers) brought the technique to the United States from Australia in 1989. Dozens of controlled studies have confirmed that the products of FC reflect the (usually unconscious) movements of the facilitator, not authentic communication by the user. The very few studies that support FC are generally anecdotal or inconclusive; one of the most referenced reports, a 1996 study by Cardinal et al., actually found that success "only occurred with prolonged practice of the experimental task, and there were many inconsistencies in the responses, even after prolonged practice." The case against FC is so strong that it has been rejected by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and the American Psychological Association, among many, many other groups.

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