Logical Fallacies in the Facilitated Communication Debate

This article was originally published at The Aspergian.

I recently published an article about the erasure from Wikipedia of autistic people who use or have used facilitated communication. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been a few persistent arguments that violate the principles of argumentation as they are taught in critical thinking courses in university.

In particular, I want to address some of the logical fallacies people fall back on when the topic of facilitated communication comes up.

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning. Some of these incidents of faulty reasoning occur so often that they have been given names (e.g., “straw man,” “ad hominem,” “red herring,” etc.)

In order to address these in a critical sense, I need to first be quite clear about what my arguments actually are, because those themselves keep getting twisted by critics. And since I’ve been criticized for not including in-text citations by those who don’t want to click links to find information, I’ll even include them.

First argument: We should presume competence of non-speaking people.

  1. Current tests of intelligence require someone to speak and move reliably. (source) Competence of non-speakers, who often also have motor difficulties, cannot be judged by these standards. (source)
  2. The part of the brain which controls the ability to speak and the part of the brain which processes language are not the same. The Broca area is responsible for forming and producing speech (source), and the Wernicke area is responsible for language comprehension (source).
  3. Research indicates autism may, in fact, be characterized by motor and sensory challenges (source); the intelligence of autistic people has been underestimated under previous understandings of autism. (source)
  4. None of the conditions that may result in being unable to produce speech necessarily include intellectual disability. (source, for ASD)

Second argument: There is no scientific consensus on FC or RPM (or: FC and RPM have not been debunked or proven pseudoscientific.)

  1. There have been studies conducted where the evidence has failed to support authentic communication. (source)
    1. Researchers have attributed the failure and evidence of facilitator influence to the ideomotor phenomenon. (source)
  2. There have been studies conducted where the evidence has supported authentic communication. (source, source)
    1. Researchers have used linguistic analysis (source), eye tracking (source), development and use of verbal speech while typing (source), and successful message-passing (source) to verify this.
    2. Further, there are many who have used FC and RPM to develop their motor functioning enough to graduate to independent typing or pointing (source).

With these facts in mind, I encouraged activists and advocates not to dismiss these methods of communication out of hand, as doing so would contribute to the erasure and silencing of our non-speaking autistic siblings.

Though my article was mostly well-received, it did attract a few critics. None of them have presented an actual counter-argument yet. Many have made use of logical fallacies, and I’d like to address them for the benefit of others who might encounter them.

Straw Men

A straw man argument occurs when the original argument is misrepresented, making it easier to defeat. The major straw man fallacy I have encountered is the interpretation of my argument as a black-and-white, shut-and-close opinion.

“You unquestioningly believe that FC and RPM work.”

I provided a lot of information in the previous article. I didn’t come to my conclusion without questioning it, doing the research, and reading about the methods. I definitely expect people to question a method that has been the subject of controversy. That’s why I included so many links to articles and studies.

I mentioned that FC users have spoken about facilitator influence that they have experienced. I mentioned that FC and RPM are still developing best practices for use. I mentioned that information with significant consequences should be verified. I think I’ve been quite clear that I think the methods can be unreliable. Even spoken words from people with apraxia of speech may also be unreliable and should be verified with them.

Yes, they work. The problem comes when you assume that “they work” means “they are 100% effective 100% of the time.” You won’t find me saying or implying that, but you’ll definitely find people claiming that I did.

Red Herrings

Red herring fallacies are distraction tactics, and a lot of different fallacies can be covered under them. Most of the ones directed at me have been appeals to irrelevant information.

Appeal to Emotion

An appeal to emotion is a fallacy in which emotionally-laden words and arguments are used as reasoning. Despite outlining the reasons for my argument quite clearly, I was accused of making a “feelings-based” argument in the comments of the previous article. This was particularly interesting because the counter-arguments that same person presented were “feelings-based” appeals to emotion.

“FC has been used to justify abuse and murder.”

True. However, these cases are rare and having been used to justify abuse and murder doesn’t negate evidence of authentic authorship. That’s why I didn’t mention it in my article.

Further, FC has also been used to validate allegations of abuse (source). I’m of the opinion that removing someone’s method of communication because they might accuse someone of abuse is inhumane. It’s not a decision made to protect the person communicating; it’s a decision made to protect everyone else. False allegations are not specific to FC. Using abuse allegations as a counter-argument is not a reason to prevent others from accessing it.

Use of loaded language

Both sides in a debate will likely use loaded language to sway others to their position. I certainly do, but I also don’t use it as my main argument. Critics believe that they are defending those who would use FC or RPM from being “exploited” or having their voices “stolen.”

I have heard comparisons made to “puppets” with their “strings” being controlled by facilitators. I have seen FC compared to identity fraud, etc. These comparisons may sway opinion, but ultimately they fail to negate evidence of valid communication.

Appeal to Authority

An appeal to authority is when someone points to specific authorities on a matter as proof. This happened a lot when I was on Wikipedia. I kept getting directed to mainstream media articles in which scientists said things like, “Everyone in the scientific community knows FC is debunked!” These were used as “proof” that there was a scientific consensus.

Yet, the fact still remained that there were many articles detailing evidence that supported valid authorship. Clearly, the evidence is conflicting. Why would I take random scientists’ and skeptics’ opinions of FC over the studies themselves? I stuck to the conclusion that there is no consensus.

Appeal to Popularity

An appeal to popularity is a fallacy in which an idea being popular is taken as proof that it must be true. A response to my article suggested Googling facilitated communication to see how widespread the claim of it being debunked is.  Something being a widely-held belief does not negate evidence of authentic authorship.

Every new idea was once treated in the way that facilitated communication was. It’s not a logical argument for or against the practice.

Shifting Goalposts

Shifting the goalposts is less of a logical fallacy and more of a logical bias and often proof of a bad faith argument. It refers to changing the criteria for truth once the previous criteria have been met.

Within FC, I have experienced it like this:
“You need evidence” ->
“You need evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal” ->
“You need quantitative evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal” ->
“You need quantitative evidence in a peer-reviewed academic journal that has been Medline indexed.”

FC users themselves have also been subject to shifting goalposts:

“Your words are not authentic… if someone is holding your hand” ->
“if someone is holding your arm” ->
“if someone is touching you at all” ->
“if someone is in the room with you” ->
“if you ever used FC/RPM in the past.”

This final goalpost is why typists like Sue Rubin (and now Lucy Blackman) have been erased from Wikipedia despite the fact that they are both capable of communicating without a support person touching them (source and source); even being able to independently type is questionable to critics.

When the ideomotor effect no longer explains how non-speakers are capable of writing, opponents of FC go on to claim that non-speakers are being “subtly cued” to know what to type.

There’s absolutely no evidence for this, but people are so willing to cling to the belief that non-speakers can’t produce cohesive language that they’ve come up with new ways of discrediting them. This is particularly why competence is part of my argument.

Arguments From Analogy

When arguing from analogy, the stronger the similarities between the two things you are comparing, the stronger the argument. A logical fallacy occurs when the analogy is too weak. When discussing FC and RPM, people have tried to draw analogies with channelling, mediumship, automatic writing, ufology, cryptozoology, etc.

Anything that is considered pseudoscience is up for comparison.

These people fail to take into account that we are talking about a human being who is visible. Comparisons to people claiming to receive information from invisible beings are not relevant. Comparisons to unidentified flying objects are not relevant. Comparisons to Bigfoot are not relevant.

They are brought up to try and discredit the argument further, but they contribute nothing in terms of sound reasoning.

In conclusion…

Critics will surely continue to move the goalposts, but I’ve outlined my argument and supporting premises quite clearly.

Let’s stick to the facts from here on out.

On ABA Therapy, Self-Determination, & Healthy Psychological Development

This article was originally published at The Aspergian.

Before I came to my identity as an autistic person, I had a short-lived obsession with self-determination theory (SDT), a framework for characterizing the processes which foster or inhibit healthy motivation and psychological development. I’m still very curious about SDT, and I have drawn correlations between the findings of motivation research and behavioural therapy before.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to see the originators of SDT cited in a recent article which drew the same conclusion many autistic self-advocates realized years ago: long-term ABA is abuse.

It’s a very brief mention:

Detrimental effects are noted after the introduction of a reward such as reduced motivation, reduced intrinsic interest, and reduced performance quality in both typical and non-typical children. Additionally, the reward-expectation even lingers after changing the target task and the environment, indicating that the only thing that is being generalized is low motivation and the need for rewards (Deci, 1971; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; Lepper et al., 1973; Wiechman & Gurland, 2009).

Self-determination theory came about as a result of research conducted by Edward L. Deci and, later, Richard Ryan. Through experiments, they proved that extrinsic motivators actually make people less likely to perform quality work and create reliance on extrinsic motivators.

They also concluded that people are intrinsically motivated by three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They call these factors innate and universal, and they play an important role in our mental well-being.


Autonomy refers to the ability to make choices independently (with informed consent and without coercion). Children undergoing ABA-style “therapy” are not making the autonomous choice to do so, and this may be the main reason it causes post-traumatic stress in so many of its survivors. Repeatedly experiencing something you don’t want and having no way to stop it leads to learned helplessness.

I am often told that kids aren’t forced to do anything in their version of ABA. However, I must remind everyone that we are talking about children (with neurodevelopmental delays, no less!) They don’t have enough life experience to make informed decisions about therapy. They aren’t allowed to opt out. They usually don’t even get to choose their own goals.

Sure, kids might enjoy sessions for whatever treats they get as positive reinforcement, but they enjoy the treat, not the session.  The most dangerous abuse is the abuse that happens when people are unaware they’re being abused.

If I may digress, I recall an instance in which someone defended their use of a choke chain for their dog by saying that their dog gets excited and happy when they see it, so it clearly couldn’t be hurting him. That’s a false equivalence. The dog was excited because he was going for a walk, not because he loves the choke chain.

All people are motivated by autonomy, but I suspect this is even more true for autistic people. We even share the same etymology with it: “auto” is Greek for “self.”  We are often seen swimming against the tide while everyone else wonders why.

I’ve heard people claim that Greta Thunberg is being paid for her activism or that her parents forced her into it. Nah, she’s just convinced by what she has read on her own and wants to fight for the future. She’s exercising her autonomy as a citizen of the world. No extrinsic motivation necessary!

A young woman holding up a sign that says We Don't Have Time.


Competence refers to the ability to feel effective and recognized for what you do. When you are told to “presume competence” when dealing with autistic people, it’s because all people do best when our abilities are recognized. Since I can’t phrase it any better than this article at Very Well Mind puts it, allow me to quote directly:

Competence is increased when one is given opportunities to exercise their skills in challenges that are optimally matched to their abilities. If tasks are too hard or too easy, feelings of competence will decrease.

ABA often fails in this regard, and non-speakers who have later found a means of communication frequently point out how their competence has been undermined by it. A specific and powerful quote from Ido Kedar comes to my mind when I think about ABA and competence. He says the following in his blog post, Motor Difficulties in Severe Autism:

[My instructors] thought they were collecting data on my receptive understanding of language. They were not. I understood everything, as any other child my age would. The data they were collecting, though they did not know it, actually measured my poor ability at that time to get my hand to touch with accuracy the card I wanted, and did not reflect an accurate measure of how much I understood. My mind might be screaming, “Touch tree! Don’t touch house!” and I would watch, like a spectator, as my hand went to the card my hand, not my brain, wanted. And down in the data book it would be marked that I had not yet mastered the concept of tree.

Imagine going through that for 40 hours a week. According to Deci and Ryan, feeling competent is a psychological need. With that in mind, there can be no question that ABA is psychologically abusive to those with motor difficulties.

Consider any time you decided to learn something just for fun and you’re seeing competence as intrinsic motivation. Playing an instrument is a good example. Not everyone who learns an instrument is doing so to make money. It’s nice to have mastered something and then perform as a display of that mastery. I myself experienced a competence boost when my recent article was noticed and well-received by quite a few people that I admire.

A photo of a chess board with a person's hand holding the white
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com


Sometimes called “social relatedness,” relatedness refers to the ability to experience connections with other people and to feel a sense of belonging. Relatedness is so important for neurominorities. Our brains are very different from the majority of brains, and we are often targeted, bullied, and singled out for being “weird.”

One of the biggest myths about autistics is that we lack empathy. I mentioned the etymology of “autistic” earlier. Unfortunately, this idea is the real reason that “auto” is part of “autism.”

We were interpreted as being off in our own worlds, not interested in other human beings, and unable to understand them. Nothing could be further from the truth. While not all of us are social butterflies, many of us love being with other people… we’re just picky about who those people are.

ABA notably ignores the psychological need of social relatedness, though proponents might not think it does. After all, behavioural therapy often focuses on teaching skills that are meant to help the child integrate into society more easily.

The problem is that the social skills autistic children are taught don’t contribute to their sense of belonging (and ABA time often replaces time that should be spent learning with peers). Instead, the skills they are taught serve to highlight their differences and imply that they need to change to fit in. That’s the opposite of relatedness.

A solution for achieving social relatedness through education might be to teach autistic children how and why neurotypical children act the way they do… and then teach neurotypical children how and why autistic people act the way we do. There must be effort on both sides. Learning neurotypical communication is a worthy goal for autistics, but children need to be taught in a way that doesn’t diminish their own way of communicatin– not by replacing their behaviours with different, more “acceptable” ones.

The vast majority of my long-time friends are neurodivergent themselves. Noting and acknowledging that fact was quite validating for me when I was still pursuing a diagnosis. It seemed so obvious. We recognize each other, and we might not quite understand why, but there is an innate sense of acceptance there.

In James Cameron’s “Avatar,” the Na’vi people greet each other by saying, “I see you.” It’s not a physical seeing, but more of a spiritual understanding and acceptance. This is the essence of relatedness: feeling understood, feeling important, feeling loved.

A screenshot of Neytiri, a Na'vi character from the 2009 film
“I see you.” © James Cameron’s “Avatar

In conclusion…

Thank you for reading my self-determination theory infodump article. Our (all humans’) psychological needs are just as important as our physical needs! If you’re feeling mentally unwell, think about how these three needs might play into your state of mind. A small tweak to something to allow for more autonomy, competence, or relatedness might just make a huge difference.