Facilitated Communication Case Fails to Deliver

By Darcy Cowan 16/02/2010

The indefatigable Dr. Novella has been keeping track of the Facilitated Communication case of Rom Houben and via his blog I have learned that further investigation into the case has failed to deliver the goods.

As a refresher, late in November last year the news broke of a man who had been misdiagnosed as being in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS, an essentially hopeless prognosis) being given a new lease on life thanks to modern diagnostic techniques and a practice known as Facilitated Communication (FC). While the mainstream media initially reported this news without a hint of scepticism (despite FC’s chequered past) it didn’t take long for doubts to be made known (for previous posts by myself and fellow Sciblogger Alison see here and here).

Dr. Steven Laureys, the neurologist whose work had thrust Rom into the limelight, only performed a few simple tests to convince himself of the communication method’s legitimacy. To his credit once the full force of the criticism was evident Dr. Laureys determined to return the question of FC’s validity with regard to Rom and conducted tests with the appropriate controls and protocols. These test subsequently showed that Rom was not the one communicating after all.

As detailed in an article by Spiegel Online:

Laureys has now carried out those tests, and his results hold that it wasn’t Houben doing the writing after all. The tests determined that he doesn’t have enough strength and muscle control in his right arm to operate the keyboard. In her effort to help the patient express himself, it would seem that the speech therapist had unwittingly assumed control. This kind of self-deception happens all the time when this method — known as “facilitated communication” — is used. (As a result, the things that Houben was attributed as saying to SPIEGEL for an article printed in November 2009 were also not authentic.)

In the more recent test, Houben was shown or told a series of 15 objects and words, without a speech therapist being present. Afterward, he was supposed to type the correct word — but he didn’t succeed a single time.

Those of us that were aware of FC’s history may not have been be surprised at this result but that does not mean we are not also saddened. I for one would have been happy to lose my cynical opinion of FC in order to keep the eloquent man who spoke movingly of having “Dreamed [him]self away” and his relief at being recognised as conscious; “I will never forget the day they discovered me, the day of my second birth.“. Speaking of which, what pray tell, has happened to the alleged speech therapist Linda Wouters who, it is now evident, was the true originator of the words gushingly attributed to Mr Houben by his family and the media? (And would have been behind the planned book ostensibly written by Rom.) Even if such deception was inadvertent (ie she truly believed that the words came from Rom) this surely casts deep doubt on her professional abilities, and possibly, integrity.

It must be a crushing blow to Mr Houben’s familiy to realise that they must start all over again in their attempts to communicate with Rom, remember that the speech therapist had been working with him for three years. Three years wasted. I hope his family can find the strength to carry on and the fortitude to be cautious about further improvements in the face of this disappointment.

[UPDATE: 19-02-10. Dr. Novella participated in a radio story about the case yesterday, the audio of which can be found Here. Interestingly Dr. Laureys was also interviewed and admitted that the facilitator may have been in the room during the first tests thus completely invalidating the results and subsequent tests were thwarted by “Rom” responding with answers like “you don’t trust me” and “I don’t want to do the test”. A second facilitator had to be brought in in order for the final testing to be done. To my mind this makes the likelihood of Linda Wouters being an innocent participant here much less and that of conscious fraud much more.]

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Filed under: Hoaxes, Psychological, Questionable Techniques, Sciblogs, Science, skepticism, Warped Science Tagged: Facilitated communication, FC, Health and Medicine, persistent vegetative state, Rom Houben, Science, Steven Laureys