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Facilitated Communication Rears Its Pseudoscientific Head Once Again: When will they ever learn?

January 8, 2012

Last Friday’s 20/20 featured a 2007 case involving an autistic teen in Michigan, Aislinn Wendrow, who was subjected to a thoroughly discredited intervention, Facilitated Communication which resulted in bogus charges of sexual abuse against her father and even though he was eventually cleared of all charges,  irreparable damage to this vulnerable child and her family has been done.

This is a heartbreaking reminder of why what those of us do who are exposing pseudoscience and potentially harmful therapies, is so vital.  It is cases such as this that make me all the more determined to continue what I am doing, regardless of push back and resistance from certain mental health professionals who are doing everything they can to silence the voices of those who dare to blow the whistle.

For those unfamiliar with Facilitated Communication (FC), what it is and its background, an earlier Frontline documentary is available online, which gives the background on FC and shows how it was completely discredited by double-blind controlled studies which provided irrefutable evidence that it was the facilitator, not the autistic person, who was doing the typing. Not only did FC result in bogus charges of sexual abuse being filed, but more commonly, it gave parents false hopes that their child was actually communicating with them when in fact, they were not.

Whether intentional or not, I cannot imagine a crueler hoax, to lead a parent to believe that their child is communicating with them when really it is the doings of some stranger who was guiding their hands. It appears that most FC proponents are not intentionally perpetrating a hoax and they really believe in what they are doing, but nevertheless, it is highly irresponsible to be using a method that has been so thoroughly discredited.

It was bad enough when FC was being used in the 1990s when it was untested rather than discredited but now that double blind controlled studies have been done, anyone who uses it now, in my opinion is committing a gross deviation from any proper standard of care I can think of.  What happened with FC in the 1990s is an illustration of why it is so important to thoroughly test interventions before they are released to the public because without such testing we have no idea whether the intervention will help, do nothing or harm. When FC first came out, positive anecdotes and success stories abounded and it was said to be a miracle that gave autistic children, for the very first time, a voice. Sadly, it was nothing of the sort.

While it is no surprise that true believers in pseudoscientific practices will explain away any studies that falsify their claims (that is a hallmark indicator of a pseudoscience) and conduct poorly designed studies of their own, what is shocking to me is that in the year 2007, more than 15 years after the practice was so thoroughly discredited, police and prosecutors accepted it so uncritically. Additionally, the school paid to have an FC facilitator accompany the child to classes and apparently the school never questioned its validity. The father spent 80 days in jail and the parents had both of their children removed from the home and placed in foster care, based solely on the results of a Facilitated Communication session where accusations of abuse were typed out. Additionally, her brother was subjected to a grueling interrogation by police where they did everything they could to try to pressure him into saying the charges were true. It took some doing to get those charges dropped and the children returned to their loving home with their parents.

Thankfully, the “facilitator” Cynthia Scarsella, according to the 20/20 report, currently makes her living as a clerk at a clothing store in a mall. She refused to talk to reporters. Let’s hope Ms. Scarsella is never allowed to go near another child again in the role of any kind of a therapist or “facilitator”. However she was ever given any credibility in a court of law, remains a mystery.

This case serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the kind of damage that can be done through the use of untested or in this case, thoroughly discredited interventions. This practice ought to have ended in the 1990s when similar false accusations were made and the practice was falsified via double blind studies. When will they ever learn?

  1. I think this sort of thing is complicated by the fact there are a lot of autistic people who use keyboards/letter boards and other forms of augmented communication, and to someone who isn’t aware of the differences FC might seem to be just another part of that category.

  2. tony permalink

    Did cynthia scarsella ever go to prison? Isn’t what she did perjury? I looked her up online and unless someone else has her name it appears she’s running a pet grooming business. Let’s hope she doesn’t proclaim herself a dog whisperer and land someone else in jail.

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