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 Article of Interest - Autism

Making Their Way: Despite Critics, Autistic Youths Still Typing
ABC News, January 20, 2003
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Autism is like a heavy curtain between its sufferers and the outside world, and when facilitated communication was introduced, it seemed like the curtain had lifted and autistic people were at last able to reveal themselves.

Facilitated communication is an attempt to help autistic children speak by using a "facilitator" to steady their hand as they type words and sentences into a keyboard, expressing their thoughts. The facilitator — or whomever is standing there — is able to read it aloud. It was 11 years ago when facilitated communication first started making waves in the autistic community.

When ABCNEWS' Diane Sawyer interviewed three teenagers about it back in 1991, they told her that facilitated communication had changed their lives. One 16-year-old autistic boy, Jeff, seemed overjoyed at being able to communicate.

"Yes, it has changed my life because now I can let people know that I am intelligent and I am good with words and I care about people," Jeff's facilitator said, reading what the teen had typed into the keyboard. "I love them."

But several leading experts in the field said they tested facilitated communication scientifically and found conclusively that it didn't work — at all — and that well meaning facilitators were unconsciously guiding fingers toward the keys. Still, the families of the three teens that ABCNEWS met, Lucy Harrison, Ben Lehr and Jeff Powell, say they have continued to use facilitated communication and when Good Morning America visited them again recently, each said it was still changing their lives.

'We Didn't Know She Was There'

Lucy Harrison, who was 15 at the time of the first interview, talked about autism when ABCNEWS first met her.

"I wish I was not autistic," Lucy Harrison said through facilitated communication. "I wish I could do all the things other kids do."

Nita Harrison, Lucy's mother, said her daughter's communication astounded the family.

"As she says, 'I am like everyone else inside my body,'" Nita Harrison said."And she is in there, two feet away from us, and we didn't know she was there."

Lucy Harrison is now 26, and her facilitators touch only her shoulder as she types into the keyboard. She speaks as she types — though not always clearly — and is an incredibly fast typist. Observing her, it seems impossible that her words are not her own as she writes about facilitated communication, which she calls FC.

"And a good way to be in the world was a way to have the FC for the people who need understanding," she typed. "The person who's autism, the person will be the one who needs to be the....quickly the world will pass the person with the lack of the communication."

" (Communi) 'cation, yes," she says aloud as she typed.

Lucy is nearly finished with college, taking classes with the help of facilitated communication, and is thinking about getting a job when she's through, possibly at Pizza Hut, she says.

A Poet of Winter

Jeff Powell was 16 when ABCNEWS first met him, and through facilitation he explained that his body makes involuntary movements that he can't control

"Yes, it does what it wants to," Powell's facilitator said, reading the words typed out by Powell. "Sometimes I can't help what it does."

Powell, an ace student and inspired poet, audited a couple college courses after high school, but then stopped going to school. His practice of typing without looking — shared by many people with autism — is something even supporters say seems impossible.

He still writes poetry with facilitated communication: "Caving in the snow, my feet feeling cold, snowbound, not easily defrosted, testing the icy jingles of fresh freezing snow … "

Ben Lehr, another teen, was full of personality when ABCNEWS met him in 1991. He declared himself a Democrat and typed out that Anita Hill was telling the truth.

Lehr, now 29, finished college and surprised his parents, by telling them, they say, through facilitated communication, that he wanted to get a roommate and move out on his own. He did just that, and today, with his sister's help, he builds furniture that is sold in local stores.

The three teens who first told their stories a decade ago are each in their way —making their own way in the world.

"It was a dream of the … getting the cure, the cure of the autism, autism," Lucy Harrison said.

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