A Controversial Autism Therapy Unravels a Family

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Some unproven psychological therapies and techniques for autism aren’t simply ineffective. They can split families and cause untold harm to children, as one family in Michigan learned at terrible cost.

The Detroit Free Press recently published a six-part investigation into the harrowing case of the Wendrow family, who have two children with autism spectrum disorders. The parents encouraged the use of facilitated communication (FC), a highly controversial technique that aims to help autistic people communicate by using a keyboard with the aide of another person. Despite the fact that FC has been widely debunked, the Wendrows strongly believe it helped their autistic and mute daughter.

FC is what led to a false accusation of sex abuse against the Wendrows by their own child. That left the parents in jail and their two autistic children in foster care.

The Free Press‘s L.L. Brasier and John Wisely write:

[Julian Wendrow] and his wife, Thal Wendrow, were seemingly ordinary middle-class parents deeply involved in their children’s lives — until the accusations prompted a prosecution that a federal judge later described as a “runaway train.”

Thal spent five days in jail, accused of ignoring the abuse. Their children — a severely disabled teen girl and a mildly autistic boy — were put in separate juvenile homes and kept apart from their parents for 106 days. …

The ordeal didn’t end when it was clear that the girl wasn’t communicating, after all. It didn’t end when a sexual assault exam found no proof of abuse. And it didn’t end when a prosecution witness insisted the abuse never happened.

The series is worth a close read (though navigating the website is a bit onerous). It describes how the Wendrow’s mute and intellectually disabled daughter seemed to blossom and reveal hidden intelligence after her family started using FC: “With a facilitator guiding her arm, the child who had never been taught to read was suddenly writing poetry and English essays, taking history exams and doing algebra. The middle-schooler who couldn’t put on her coat without help was typing about her plans to become a college professor,” Brasier and Wisely write.

But the technique, in which the aide’s hand is supposedly guided by the child to type what she wants to say, has been proved ineffective. It has been shown to rely on the aide’s projections rather than to reflect the child’s thoughts. Although some autistic children can learn to communicate genuinely via a keyboard with only initial guidance, facilitated communication, in which an aide always does the typing has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that the words are written or thought by the child. For example, when the facilitator is not allowed to hear the questions being asked of the child, the resulting answers are wrong or nonsensical.

When the Wendrow’s daughter’s aide typed allegations of sexual abuse against the girl’s father and brother — and claimed that the child’s mother had been ignoring her complaints — a prosecution of the family was set into motion that became nearly unstoppable. The aide refused to believe she was not typing her own ideas, even though the child was clearly not capable of the complex language being attributed to her. Once prosecutors and the aide became convinced of the truth of the allegations, even overwhelming evidence of their falsehood was ignored.

We don’t often consider the “side effects” of nondrug therapies. But the Free Press series shows just how harmful it can be to buy into a technique or therapy that offers nothing but hope. Many things that help can also harm, which is why we need sound science before any new technique is widely adopted — let alone used as evidence in custody or criminal cases.

1 comments
GaryWilliams
GaryWilliams

Overlooked repeatedly in this and many other instances of false imprisonment, even convictions on serious felonies like murder, is the presence of the authoritarian submissive personality that takes up a career in hierarchical fields like policing, military, DEA, FBI, etc. The high-RWA (Altemeyer) personality is one that "seizes and freezes" on solutions prematurely more often than low-RWA scorers. They tend to blame victims  more readily than others, and seem much more willing to commit violence against persons they deem unconventional, non-traditional, or socially marginalized by "good" society standards..even justifying such behavior as having the unspoken approval of their leaders,,,be they military commanders, clerics, political leaders, or even members of their own "|in-group" eg. other soldiers  police officers, socially conservative (almost always) celebrities of some sort. etc. 

Society now accepts these death-row releases based on DNA evidence that keep happening (and other events like this one here) as simply part of life among fallible, though well-meaning people. However that is a HUGE mistake, and one that could be cut at least in half (as per  my own, admittedly incomplete data set for the calculation)  by simply screening out police recruits who score above a set amount on the RWA Scale, or perhaps screening for "seize and freeze" trait in particular as this leads directly to not only forming the "tunnel vision" we hear of time and time again whenever these sorts of tragedies come to light, but even compel the PO to refuse to entertain any and all suggestions that the original solution (guilt) they seized on was a mistake. Again, its not unusual to hear of a sheriff not allowing DNA evidence in lock-up to examined for usable DNA that would prove guilt on way or another  "That;s a waste of time and taxpayer money by a slick lawyer and a murderer trying to get away with his crime. They ALL claim they're not guilty, and I for one, am not going to fall for it!" Again, heard repeatedly coming from the mouths of "law and order  sheriffs like Joe Arpaio, or DAs (or TV judges or personalities like Nancy Grace who, prior to being picked up by CNN, was sanctioned quite severely by appeals court and state supreme courts for assuming guilt then railroading a defendant using whatever underhanded tactics she could in the apparent belief that whatever she did was still too good for what they deserved from society. A murderer was actually released due a series of such tactics like not revealing exculpation evidence to the defendants lawyers, lying under oath, "losing" evidence, etc, etc.  

But I don't want to make this about her. What the research on "the dominant-submissive authoritarian embrace" phenomenon has revealed is that we, as a society, have come to mistakenly imbue our soldiers and police officers with motives and behaviors that are  more  wishful thinking on our part than they are an actual profile of the typical RWA (authoritarian follower) personality that seeks careers where rules and expectations are clear, where individualism is frowned upon, and right and wrong are codified, where Us vs Them is the worldview, good and evil are defined for them by Scripture  orders are expected to be followed, questioning orders or bucking tradition are seen as radical behavior that threatens society, the army, the force itself. If the Church says evolution is wrong, that;s all he needs to know on the subject, as is the reason his President sent him to war, spouts simplistic cliches like "the law's the LAW" as if that all that anyone needs to know about criminal behavior.  Their use of empathy to gain insight into the possible motivations of others is much more restricted than others,; show low cognitive complexity, high compartmentalization of ideas, strong needs for certainty-fear of ambiguity; and are generally more fearful than others; score VERY highly on measures of self-righteousness (but when asked how they THINK they will score co pared to others, declare themselves to be the least self-righteous.....which is exactly what we'd expect a strongly self-righteous person to say of themselves, isn't it? :-)