If we set aside for a moment that the foundational underpinnings of the new documentary “The Reason I Jump” is a pseudoscientific practice called Facilitated Communication (FC), it is quite a cinematic and emotional movie. It is arguably the best pro-FC film to date. The imagery and sound score are gorgeous, as are the passages selected from the book translated by David Mitchell and Keiko Yoshida, who are themselves parents of a non-speaking child with autism. Director Jerry Rothwell skillfully weaves a rich auditory and visual narrative intent on illuminating the thoughts of Naoki Higashida, a Japanese teenager with autism, who, viewers are told, cannot “do real conversation,” but, nonetheless, has, purportedly, written a book. Viewers are urged not to judge Higashida – and by extension, other people with autism – by “the outside only.” This sentiment is one of the few redeeming messages of the film. However, this advice closely echoes the FC proponent “presume competence/do not test” mantra and raises concerns when it comes to evaluating whose voice is actually being represented in the film.
It bears saying that this review is not a judgment of Higashida, the other individuals with autism in the film, or anyone who is currently being subjected to FC. Nor is it a criticism of the parents, who are quite obviously caring and trying to do the best they can for their children. It is, however, a critique of FC – the technique – and those who continue to promote it with religious-like conviction despite scientific evidence that FC messages are facilitator controlled and, most likely, not the words of the individuals being facilitated.
While the producers of the film point out the book is a best seller, they fail to alert their viewers to two key pieces of information: firstly, that Higashida’s book was written using FC and is, most likely, the words of his facilitator and not his own (see Fein & Kamio, 2014; Japan Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2016 and its English translation); and secondly, that Elizabeth Vosseller, featured prominently in the film, is a staunch proponent of FC and promotes it as ‘Spelling to Communicate’ (S2C).
This is not the first time proponents have tried to deflect attention away from the fact that FC is discredited by rebranding it. The Facilitated Communication Institute at Syracuse University, established by FC founder Douglas Biklen, changed its name to the Institute on Communication and Inclusion to “fly under the radar and maintain credibility” after a spate of false allegations of abuse cases made by facilitators against families of their clients using FC. Given its volatile history, including false allegations of abuse and facilitator crimes, omitting these facts feels like a choice by producers to downplay FC’s role in the film.
In Facilitated Communication, the individual being facilitated is trained to respond to visual and auditory cues provided by an assistant or facilitator, as the pair type out sentences on a letterboard. Unfortunately, through this process, these individuals become overly dependent on facilitator cuing to know which letters to select. Facilitator control is so inextricably part of FC that organisations such as the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Association for Science in Autism Treatment and others have statements opposing its use, and further advise their members not to use FC to make any major decisions.
These observations are not, as Mitchell stated in a recent interview, “knee-jerk reactions” to FC. The phenomenon has been closely studied by the scientific and academic communities and bears resemblance to automatic writing and the use of a planchette popularised in the late 1800s (see Dillon, 1993; Hall, 1993; Green, 1994; Spitz, 1997). At times, the cuing is so subtle that the pointing behaviors of those being subjected to FC look “independent,” but anyone who understands the ideomotor response – and where to look – will be able to observe the movements of the facilitator that control which letters are selected. The person being facilitated need only extend a finger in the direction of the board; the facilitator can do the rest. The powerful messaging in pro-FC videos – in this case the beautiful poetic observations of the narrator, striking visuals, and the music accompanying it – create a magical illusion that masks facilitator control and lulls viewers into overlooking what they are witnessing on screen.
In 1990, Biklen introduced FC to the United States as a revolutionary new technique on the “assumption of its validity”. Thirty years later, Vosseller continues this tradition by promoting S2C, stating in the movie that:
If non-speakers are capable of spelling and are capable of intelligence, that really shakes the foundation of a lot of things that we’ve believed.
But, assumptions and ifs are not evidence that messages produced using FC represent the thoughts of the individuals being subjected to its use. Rather, the evidence points to facilitator control instead. Vosseller appears to be framing the discussion as if critics of FC believe that non-speaking individuals are incapable of producing independent thought. This is a false frame: evidence-based communication techniques and equipment are being used every day to support some non-speaking individuals to enhance their communication abilities without the interference of a facilitator. In the case of FC, it is the technique that is flawed, not the individuals using it.
Why does it matter if the thoughts and ideas being expressed in the film were produced using FC? Because when Higashida’s facilitated words are juxtaposed with images of other non-speaking individuals with autism, viewers cannot help but believe that the ideas being expressed represent those individuals, how they think, and how they feel. Admittedly, it is difficult not to want the FC-generated messages to be true. But, as Jill Escher of the National Council on Severe Autism states, “the new film’s aims are gutted by the pushing of pseudoscience”.
The internal thoughts and feelings of the individuals with autism featured in “The Reason I Jump” are not actually represented, other than through observations by their parents and, in the case of two individuals, through the use of FC – where the typed words are, most likely, the thoughts of the facilitators, and not their own.
Representation is a problem people in the autism community wrestle with every day and, sadly, “The Reason I Jump,” fails in its efforts to advance this cause by ignoring the science behind FC (or lack thereof) and, as Paddy Mulholland suggests, quite possibly “makes the viewer less informed than they were going in”.
- ASHA: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association on Facilitated Communication
- ASHA: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association on Rapid Prompting Method
- AAIDD: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
- ASAT: Association for Science in Autism Treatment
See the FacilitatedCommunication.org website for details on false allegations of abuse cases, facilitator crimes, organisations with statements opposing FC, Systematic Reviews, Controlled Studies, and further information on the Ideomotor Response.