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.