Updated on July 25, 2016
For Autism Awareness Month in April, Apple produced a video in which a young teen with autism uses an iPad that dictates what he types. Touching on-screen buttons, he expresses complex thoughts by assembling sentences from icons that represent words.
Speech-assistive technology like this, which used to be prohibitively expensive, is invaluable for the many children and adults with autism who have trouble learning words and grammar, don’t understand social rules during conversations, or struggle to spontaneously use spoken language. But the video has come under some scrutiny—not because of the new technology, but because of the human help he had using it.
In one brief sequence, the boy is shown typing into a device held by a woman, his “communication partner,” who gently pushes the keyboard back against his finger as he types. This pressure, which allegedly helps him to organize his sensory system and motor planning, is a hallmark of Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), what some experts argue is a form of “facilitated communication”—a technique that persists in spite of overwhelming evidence that discredits it.
Such partners—alternatively called “facilitators,” among other terms—are not akin to translators, who merely take on valid means of communication and frame it into another, but are the means of communication itself. Whereas someone who speaks French or American sign language has alternative means of verifying their communication (such as in writing), a person with a condition that can affect communication, such as autism, may lack any other means of verifying that what is being communicated to the listener accurately reflects what the person is trying to say. Not only does this run the very real danger of providing incorrect services and supports to the person, stemming as they will from the facilitator’s judgment and not the person’s, mistaking the source can have real, profound consequences: Families have been torn apart by spurious accusations of abuse, including sexual abuse. Worse, such communication has been used to try to justify the abuse itself.