Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

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Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

The Right to Communicate

By William Stillman

As most of you know, some persons with autism are simply not wired for speech, and this is the beauty of their natural design. This does not, however, negate their desire---and right---to communicate their wants, needs, and desires to the fullest extent possible. There are some who are poised to support those with autism that just cannot get their heads around the concept of presuming intellect, regardless of an individual’s perceived physical limitations including the inability to vocalize speech. Autism does not equal mental retardation. (Is there really such thing as mental retardation anymore or are we all just variations of the same grayscale?)

The right to communicate is one of the most basic and essential of all human rights. There are a myriad of alternatives to speech for someone who is silent, and individuals, parents, caregivers, and professionals should explore them all. The most respectful approach is to provide the silent individual with the opportunity to be exposed to options, singularly or in combination, in order to select the speech alternatives that best match his or her needs. This empowers not imposes; and via free choice, the individual has the incentive for personal investment in the communication mode that is new and different. One of these options is Facilitated Communication (FC).

I have used FC and taught the philosophy and technique for nearly fifteen years. When applied properly, it is one of the most liberating forms of communication---every bit as boundless as speech. I am well aware of the controversies that surround the use of FC but if you cast your fishing line into Lake Erie and don’t catch anything does it mean there’s no fish in the lake? In my opinion, FC, like any communication alternative to speech, needs to be evaluated on a person-by-person basis. I believe it is irresponsible to dismiss it as an option in its entirety simply because an oft-quoted news program that aired thirteen years ago invalidated it. There are many peer-reviewed studies that just as thoroughly give it credence.

FC is not for everyone, but that decision should be one of informed choice on the part of each individual. I have certainly offered FC to individuals who seemed totally (and repeatedly) disinterested. Is it misused and misapplied? You bet. I’ve physically felt it when I train professionals to use FC. For quality assurance, I ensure that people apply it to me and vice-versa. When applied correctly, the facilitator or communication partner should be giving upward resistance as the individual presses downward forcefully and of their own volition. I can appreciate the skepticism of the casual observer because, to the uninitiated, it looks like the facilitator is moving the individual’s hand.

People may also be skeptical because an individual has reportedly lied, swore or communicated something with which they disagreed while using FC. Guess what? People are people; and people lie, swear and may say things we don’t like no matter who they are, even if it “seems” out of character. Does FC mean that individuals become rampantly fluent and literately verbose? FC is about more than typing complete sentences; it may be as simple as supporting an individual’s motor-coordination to indicate between “yes” and “no,” or point to a choice of visuals (photos, objects, or icons)

Some of the most brilliant and wise individuals I know are folks with autism who use FC. For them, it is a more eloquent, fluent alternative to speech and they are best able to fully express themselves in writing as may be true of some of us. Remember that the ultimate outcome of FC is the endeavor for independence free from physical touch, like Sue Rubin showed us all in Autism is a World.

I am occasionally challenged---no attacked---by certain professionals who vehemently deny any value to FC; for some reason they have designated themselves with the authority to single-handedly set the parameters that limit the right to communicate by excluding FC as an option. When I have been so challenged, it has, without exception, been by professionals who are steeped in approaches that dictate rigid compliance and control. I have dear friends who are all too willing to introduce FC to disbelievers, and when I have availed this offer to my dissenters, they have all declined. This leads me to suspect that there exists a fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to relinquish control. Does relinquishing control and trusting that FC may be authentic and of service to some mean we will finally be compelled to really listen to what people are telling us? I certainly hope so.

©2005, William Stillman

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