The AP reports today about a Belgian man who was thought to have been in a vegetative state for the past 23 years but who appears to have been conscious during that time, just unable to communicate.
The story goes on to claim that car crash victim Ron Houben finally broke through with the help of speech therapist Linda Wouters “who rapidly moved his finger letter by letter along a touch-screen keyboard,”
She told the AP that can feel Houben guiding her hand with gentle pressure from his fingers, and that she feels him objecting when she moves his hand toward an incorrect letter.
Sounds like a heart-warming story for the holidays – man freed from the prison of his own body by a patient and loving therapist.
Sadly, this story has all the hallmarks of overly-credulous journalism and poor medical and science reporting.
This is almost certainly a case of “Facilitated Communication”, a thoroughly discredited technique that purports to help those with brain damage, autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other conditions communicate.
In FC, a non-communicative patient’s hand is placed in the hand of a facilitator which is then placed on a keyboard or onto a series of pictures. The facilitator then guides the patient’s hands to specific letters or images based on the patient’s movements, typing out messages.
You can imagine the emotional impact this would have on the family of the patient. At last, a breath of hope from a handicapped child or injured relative. Unfortunately, this glimpse is virtually always an illusion. It’s nothing more than a parlor trick.
There is simply no good evidence that this is anything more than the wishful or deluded thinking of the facilitator.
The American Psychological Association has issued a Position Paper on FC, stating that "Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that facilitated communication is not a scientifically valid technique for individuals with autism or mental retardation" and describing FC as "a controversial and unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy."
In the case of poor Mr. Houben, a blindfold would tell us all we need to know. If Linda Wouters, his “speech therapist”, were blindfolded and followed Mr. Houben’s hand around the keyboard, what kind of message do you think would come out?
“I’m here! I love you but I can’t speak or communicate!”
More likely something like “ksdu8ehncfp –p 038nwcp;js osdpioj”
The AP story gives the most glancing mention of the possibility that this is a case of FC. They quote Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who said,
"That's called 'facilitated communication,'" Caplan said. "That is ouija board stuff. It's been discredited time and time again. When people look at it, it's usually the person doing the pointing who's doing the messages, not the person they claim they are helping."
In the very next line the AP asks Mr. Houben how he felt when his consciousness was discovered and continue, fully credulous, to virtually interview him! Wouters plays along and answers dutifully, spouting clichés and platitudes.
Elsewhere in the article the AP makes mention of the use of a “specialized brain scan that was not available in the 1980’s” but doesn’t bother to mention what this magical new kind of scan is and whether or not it will soon reveal scores of people trapped like Mr. Houben was.
It’s a case of sloppy reporting and it’s a case of fraud. I sure hope that Linda Wouters is only deceiving herself because the alternative would make her the most unspeakable kind of wicked.
This is a sad story about a family being taken for a ride. Let’s get the blindfold out and send Linda Wouters back to the fringe.