In December 2019 in a suburb of Philadelphia, science enjoyed a small but important victory over pseudoscience in autism treatment. James Gerl, an attorney and hearing officer in the Pennsylvania Office of Dispute Resolution, released his final decision in a dispute between the Lower Merion School District and the parents of a child in that district (ODR File Number
21855/18-18AS). The parents alleged that their child had been denied a free and appropriate education as required by law and sought reimbursement for a private educational program that they set up as a remedy for what they considered an inappropriate program at school.
The parents in the case believed their child should use spelling to communicate (S2C), a brand of rapid prompting method (RPM), which itself is a version of the wholly discredited facilitated communication (FC). As readers of Skeptical Inquirer may recall, FC is a communication method that involves a second person holding the hand of the disabled person as they type on a keyboard. Extensive double-blind testing has shown that the facilitator—not the disabled person—is responsible for the words typed on the keyboard, in an unconscious Ouija-like phenomenon. RPM and S2C involve the child pointing at a letter board held in the air by a “communication partner.” Numerous professional and advocacy organizations have established policies opposing the use of FC, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (www.asha.org) has released separate position statements against the use of FC and RPM. Nonetheless, both FC and its newer variant RPM remain popular with the parents of non-speaking autistic children (see “Autism Wars: Science Strikes Back,” SI, November/December 2018).
The case in the Lower Merion School District was apparently hard fought and, at times, quite emotional. According to Gerl’s written decision, the case generated “documents and witness testimony rivaling the IBM v. Xerox litigation,” and the student’s special education teacher was described as “clearly pained to be testifying against the family whom he testified that he loved.” Nonetheless, the hearing officer’s decision was clear. Gerl found that the school district had provided a free and appropriate education for the child and that the family was not entitled to reimbursement for the private program that they set up.
This was a complete win for science, but the school system went to great lengths to consider the parents’ concerns. The parents arranged for a staff member from Growing Kids Therapy Center of Herndon, Virginia—the promoters of S2C—to train teachers from the school system in the method. However, after being trained, the “special education teacher and autistic support teacher, who had frequently worked with the student in the classroom, were not able to get the student to give clear answers using S2C methodology.”
Both sides in the dispute acknowledged that there was no research supporting the effectiveness of S2C, and the hearing officer reported that the witnesses for the school department were more credible than those called on the parents’ behalf. In the end, the facts were clear, and Gerl made an evidence-based decision.