Way: Despite Critics, Autistic Youths Still Typing
ABC News, January 20, 2003
For more articles visit
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
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
" (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
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
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.