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Communication Breakthrough?

Perhaps the question mark betrays my reporterly skepticism. I must admit that when I heard about an ABC World News story on a nonberbal 13-year-old girl with autism who was now using a computer to express herself eloquently, I thought, hmm, is this "facilitated communication?"

I know that assistive devices can be tremendously helpful for children who cannot speak. But facilitated communication, where a helper in some cases supports the hand of the person who is disabled, has had a rockier history. A critical 1993 Frontline story on the issue said that in at least some cases, the facilitator was subtly guiding the hand of the person who was supposed to be typing the words. My colleague Debra Viadero wrote a longer piece about facilitated communication, also in 1993. Some people may also be familiar with the technique because it was used with Sue Rubin, the subject of a short documentary, "Autism is a World," nominated for an Oscar in 2005.

Facilitated communication advocates have responded to the criticism with a list of studies that offer support for the method.

The ABC story clearly touched a nerve. The network received so much attention that it aired a follow-up a day after the original story. Both segments depicted the teenager, Carly Fleischmann, typing without any physical assistance. In an online conversation, Carly's parents say they have never used facilitated communication with her. They have, however, paid for 25 to 40 hours a week on intensive behavioral and speech therapy for their daughter since she was a toddler.

For educators, perhaps the most important lesson is in the last statement: parents, therapists, and teachers must be ever-creative in helping children with autism "find their voice."

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