Who let the dogmas out?

Have you ever noticed how irrationalities (a) tend to cluster, (b) tend to offer hope to the desperate, and (c) tend to appeal to folks with strongly held dogmatic beliefs? No? Well here’s an interesting example of the genre:

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December 2015 edition (Original image posted by petepuskas to r/ireland)

Get a load of Alive!, a FREE Catholic newspaper produced in Dublin, Ireland. The magazine has a reputation for being, shall we say, a tad conservative (even by Catholic standards), having famously in the past spoken out against against marriage equality, feminism, the European Union, and what Wikipedia describes as “the veracity of global warming [and] the perceived anti-Catholicism of the environmental movement in general.”

For good measure, Alive! has a big problem with people like me:

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…as opposed to god-fearin’ psychology (Pic: Wikipedia)

In fact, by and large, the publication has some interesting (and at times hilariously so) views on education:

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And this is where the science (or rather lack of it) comes in. Take another look at the December 2015 cover and you’ll see the headline “Children with autism given their voice.” This reports on a technique known as the Rapid Prompting Method, which purports to enable previously uncommunicative children with autism to convey their views and feelings. Here is Alive!‘s own description:

Dramatic changes in children’s lives have been brought about by a revolutionary new teaching method for people with autism. Rapid Prompting Method was introduced to Ireland by a group of Mayo parents…They discovered it online and brought trainers here from the USA to try it with their children, holding the first RPM workshop in 2013.

There the trainer showed that [the parents’ child who has autism] could understand normally and could already spell. By the end of the workshop he was communicating with his parents for the first time.

RPM holds that autism is not a lack of intelligence in a child but a difficulty in motor control and a lack of speech. The child is taught to point to letters on a letter-board and spell his or her answers. Eventually pupils learn to spell on a keyboard or an iPad that speaks for them. It is very successful with people with autism who have no, or limited, speech.

All of this sounds great, of course. The problem, however, is that RPM is a scientifically controversial practice. Readers may be familiar with an already disgraced method of doing more or less the same thing, known as Facilitated Communication. Facilitated Communication was shown to be misleading because the helpers doing the facilitating were succumbing to “a subtle process in which well-intended facilitators were answering questions themselves – without any awareness that they were doing so.” As a result, the American Psychological Association published a statement dismissing Facilitated Communication as a bogus treatment.

RPM is effectively Facilitated Communication repackaged for the iPad generation.

Here is a link to a paper published in the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Despite running to nine pages, the paywall-savvy authors neatly frame their conclusion in the title of their review:

The only study investigating the rapid prompting method has serious methodological flaws but data suggest the most likely outcome is prompt dependency

That’s some title. (You can tell these folks are communication experts.)

Here’s another paper where the authors describe RPM as a “strategic rebranding…and repackaging” of Facilitated Communication. Moreover, the approach comprises

old tactics that capitalize on confirmation bias, pseudoscience, anti-science, and fallacy

and because it perverts the values of independence and dignity of people with autism, it

suppresses self-determination, usurps voices, and obstructs the development of a personal identity of people with disabilities.

That paper is not behind a paywall and can be downloaded in full from here.

And here’s a short article that classifies RPM as a “questionable autism approach,” concluding that:

Both Facilitated Communication and Rapid Prompting Method are unsubstantiated and — due to the need for facilitators — expensive attempts to help nonverbal children with autism learn academic materials and communicate independently. Both methods should be avoided by parents, especially in light of available AAC strategies that do not introduce the opportunity for facilitator co-option. Ensuring that our children’s gains are honestly their own and that the communication they engage in is genuine should be every parent’s and educator’s priority.

In short, the Rapid Prompting Method is not just an ineffective means of finding out what persons with autism might be thinking, it is an exploitative and undermining technique that demeans the person being facilitated. It offers false hope to parents and caregivers (“It’s like meeting your child for the first time,” said one parent in Alive!). And by purporting to reveal ‘hidden’ intelligence that would otherwise go unrecognized, it bolsters the view that ‘low’ intelligence in one’s child is somehow unacceptable to countenance. As such, it perpetuates a stigma against persons with authentic intellectual disability.

The strange thing is how such a method becomes a popular cause for particular interest groups. Already, in Ireland, RPM has been championed by a popular gospel singer and a prominent right-wing conservative parliamentarian, as well as getting front-page coverage in Alive! 

Maybe it’s because stuff like this happens. Here’s Alive! again:

[One child] did his first workshop in August 2014. “Now we realise that he can spell and read, even though he was never taught,” says his mother…He can tell his parents when he is in pain and how he feels after a seizure…He has expressed deep faith in God and that it was his belief in Jesus that sustained him during his long years of silence.

And what exactly did the mother — using RPM — discover this child wanted to say?

“I believe Jesus is just waiting. Go to him. Spend time with Jesus. Mother Mary is only wishing with all her heart that you love Jesus. The moment you start to roam you might regret leaving this loving person.”

Hmm. For the record,

[this child’s] parents were told he had a mental age of 2.

Presumably they were told that by those pesky secular psychologists…



Categories: Alive!, Alternative/Complementary Medicine, Autism, Confirmation bias, Conservatism, Facilitated Communication, Naive optimism, Pseudoscience, Psychology, Rapid Prompting Method, Religion

4 replies

  1. What a bizarre newspaper, though it says a lot about RPM that Alive (which seems to have an aversion to all things evidence-based!) would publish a piece on the approach. The damage that can result from these kinds of anti-scientific beliefs and approaches is shocking. Great blog – thanks for drawing attention to this!

  2. Thanks for covering this and for directing people to my work on this dangerous method.

  3. Brian – as the current President of the international Stress and Anxiety Research Society (STAR), I presume that you are well aware that persons with nonverbal autism are often subject to extreme anxiety. While a blog comment is not the appropriate place for a scholarly discussion of these matters, let me simply state that clever autism experts, such as Dr. Howard Shane, were able to design “tests” in the early 1990’s that no one with nonverbal autism could pass, including my own then 22 year-old son Ben on May 3, 1994, not because they could not communicate but due to their autism. Others who were not so clever, such as Dr. Peter Eisen in 1979 in Melbourne, Australia, conveniently misplaced any data that validated the Facilitated Communication (references available on request). I understand Professor of Special Education Mark Mostert is insistent that special education practice must be based on experimental research, but what if there is research fraud?

  4. This sort of thing infuriates me. There is so much that can be done to support, understand, accept and accommodate autistic learners. There is no need to turn to discredited notions. Autistic people deserve better than this.
    I’m curious to know if any parents actually claimed that their autistic kid really came out with that sermon? And did another really say that it was like meeting their child for the first time?! What had they done with the poor kid up until then I wonder!

    (Also find it peculiar that Alive magazine are on the same side as Greer on anything.)

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