|[image: Production photo of David Jame Savarese (Deej), a thin white male
with short, cropped hair and glasses, wearing a light blue polo shirt and beige
slacks, seated at a table facing his girlfriend who is seated in a power chair
back to us, facing him. A man holding a camera is standing to their left and
caught in the act of filming them. ©DEEJ movie www.deejmovie.com/press]
“A distinguishing feature of scientific thinking is the search for falsifying as well as confirming evidence. However, many times in the history of science, scientists have resisted new discoveries by selectively interpreting or ignoring unfavorable data.” Wikipedia on Confirmation Bias
I understand that professionals who aren’t familiar with autism and autistic lived experience may carry biases about non-speaking autistic people. I don’t accept it, but I understand it. We’re human and all of us have biases. When bias becomes a problem is when academic work begins with a conclusion, for example that non-speaking autistic people must be presumed incompetent. I get seriously disturbed when scientists who know better lay out academic work to support a bias. It is personal to me, and so hurtful that I felt the need to write why.
I am an African American woman. What that means is that I and everyone who shares my race continue to be targets of something called scientific racism. Scientific racism, at its core, is misusing scientific structure and scientific reasoning to support false claims of racial superiority in general, and was one way of oppressing Black people in particular—which makes me more alert to this kind of bias when I see it used against other marginalized groups.
I am also very outspoken about the unjust treatment of autistics like my son. Full disclosure, my son is non-speaking and uses an iPad with the app TouchChat HD as his primary communication support, as part of his multi-modal communication system. He does not use FC (Facilitated Communication) or RPM (Rapid Prompting Method). But for anyone who doesn’t know any better and is watching an AAC (Adaptive and Augmentative Communication) user in a documentary, my son and someone who used those communication methods would look similar.
Representation of true non-speakers in the media is usually limited to inspiration trash or objectification to gain funding. That is why it was gratifying to see DEEJ, an award-winning documentary about DJ “Deej” Savarese, an AAC-using non-speaking autistic adult with complex support needs. This kind of representation for us people of color—outside of stereotyping in media—also began with movies, television series, and groundbreaking documentaries. There is no acceptance in a society where groups of people are not represented as three-dimensional human beings. I watched DEEJ and came away feeling it had earned its awards.
So when Social psychologist Craig Foster’s article, “Deej-a Vu: Documentary Revisits Facilitated Communication Pseudoscience” was published in Behavioral Interventions in August of this year, I read the title and flinched. Not looking forward to doing so at all, I acquired and read the review. This is what I learned:
Foster’s background is not in the diagnosis, care, or treatment of autism. He does not have a background in speech pathology or Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Foster’s focus seems limited to skepticism and concussion non-disclosure research. I wonder why he chose to write about DEEJ? He could have simply done his review on the history of Facilitated Communication (FC). Instead, his deliberate targeting of Savarese by compiling any negative literature on FC he could find comes off as a reductive approach to the documentary DEEJ, as well as one that aims to erase the film’s actual message of inclusion and representation.
Perhaps Foster is uninformed about the catastrophic role psychologists have played in the history of autism. From Asperger’s alleged Nazi collaboration, to the debacle and destroyed lives of Bruno Bettleheim’s expansion of Kanner’s “refrigerator moms” view of autism, to Ivar Lovaas and his conversion therapy cruelties, psychology has continued to destroy autistic lives. I’d like to say this has changed, but autistic children are still being given electric shock punishments at the Judge Rotenberg Center “for their own good.” With this kind of track record, the task before these professionals should be to regain the trust of their non-speaking autistic clients and their families. But here, Foster singles out a non-speaking autistic and his family to push the regressive idea that we must be skeptical of any non-speaking person’s claim to competence.
Foster’s review tries to rebrand the DEEJ documentary on inclusion as some sort of infomercial for FC. He claims he was filtering and inserting FC as a topic, so skepticism could be placed in the minds of those evaluating the film. I find this unnecessary. If the viewer doesn’t know what FC is, what they would see in the film is someone using pads, laptops, and in some cases, pen and ruled notebook pads as AAC support. When I viewed the film, I simply accepted the equipment as AAC support because the film made no effort to explain otherwise. FC was not the focus of the film, so it was neither emphasized nor discussed.
Foster’s review cherry-picked only the scenes from the documentary showing the use of supported typing. He speculated about Deej’s intelligence and competence to produce speech through AAC devices without having met, assessed, or researched anything about Deej, including how Deej communicates with support staff when they have not trained as FC facilitators or even how the Dynavox narrations were achieved in the documentary. Instead, Foster uses select scenes to conclude that Deej communicates entirely via FC, therefore, he must be presumed incompetent. There’s no mention of whether Foster followed up with anyone to verify his conjectures about the nature of Deej’s education, interactions with support staff, communication methods, or achievements.
I decided to do what Foster hadn’t done. I reached out to the Savarese family. I learned from Deej himself that he has had 52 teachers, 22 professors, 18 school support assistants/facilitators, 15 after-school assistants, 5 speech therapists, 4 occupational therapists, and 6 principals in 2 different school districts over 18 years. To my knowledge, Foster did not interview any of them. Foster commenting on Deej’s diagnosis and the scope of his intelligence was a misuse of scientific reasoning.
To prove his point about FC, Foster also ignored scenes that complicated his thesis, like the scenes in which Deej toured Washington D.C. with his cousin. Deej’s mother leaves a notepad of scripts with printed words so that the cousins can communicate by having Deej point to responses to any query by his cousin. Meaning Deej toured DC without a facilitator and communicated without FC. When Deej begins his pioneering attendance at Oberlin, he has support staff who are not trained in FC who help him transition. Yet Deej is seen making transitions and participating in activities that indicate competence. His efforts to self-regulate in response to his parents’ requests for him to try and self-calm show receptive language acuity—he clearly understands what people are saying to him—and the cognitive competence to overcome moments of anxiety that might normally end in autistic meltdown or shutdown.
If Foster’s literature review was stripped down to his analysis of Deej’s competence based upon his viewing of a 72-minute documentary, Behavioral Intervention would have received intensive backlash for violation of section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Principles of Medical Ethics, otherwise known as the Goldwater Rule. The Goldwater Rule was put in place to keep mental health professionals from conjecturing a diagnosis of a public figure’s competence without proper in-person examination and assessment. I believe that targeting the documentary, then using negative and sensationalized literature on FC as a weaponized tool to justify this sort of armchair diagnosis, is a violation of the Goldwater Rule by proxy.
Filtering and presenting this film as if its entire purpose was to promote FC is inaccurate at best. By forcing academic focus away from the documentary’s themes of interdependence, inclusion, and the presumption of competence, Foster does harm not only to the FC community but to people like my son who continue to suffer maltreatment because of the same scientific ableism that produced Foster’s review.
As we have no accurate way of measuring intelligence without language proficiency, and literacy is often denied to non-speaking individuals without AAC support of some kind, can any psychiatric professional generalize the latent intelligence of non-speaking people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD)? Yet this is exactly what Foster does when he posits,”Other aspects of the documentary suggest that FC’s purported ability to reveal hidden intelligence is once again illusory. When a speaker calls Deej’s name for a National Honor Society ceremony, Deej’s mother needs to prompt Deej to walk to the stage.
I confess I paused here and burst out laughing. Foster obviously doesn’t know anything about autistic processing delays, or what event crowds, camera/cellphones flashing, and the roar of applause does to someone autistic in public spaces regardless of their degree of disability. Deej’s disorientation during this event is unremarkable. He’s autistic! His response was a completely natural reaction for any autistic adult. In fact, this is why his father’s surprised reaction and verbal exchange between his parents ended in their rushing to provide support. Just because an autistic person wants to try to get through a high-stress event on their own doesn’t mean support persons shouldn’t be there in case things go wrong. Foster’s mistaken analysis of this scene does not support his thesis. It simply verifies that David James Savarese is an autistic adult who reacts as any autistic adult would in a similar situation.
Foster plows ahead with his thesis: “When Deej and his mother pack to move to Oberlin, Deej’s mother explains to Deej that some clothes are too small—he keeps them for sentimental reasons. Moments like these are easy to miss, perhaps because it is easy to forget the expectations that the documentary sets for Deej. These moments might seem compatible with a young man who has autism with complex communication needs, but they do not seem compatible with a young man who has earned his enrollment in Oberlin College.”
Again Foster’s lack of experience with autistic people and literature about autistic life experiences is evident in this paragraph. Just last month, a mother went through great lengths and succeeded in getting a larger size of the only dress her autistic daughter would wear. Presenting a common autistic behavior—intense attachment to meaningful objects—that is typical regardless of communication or support needs as evidence of incompetence doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Even if we remove Deej’s disability from his desire to keep clothes he’s outgrown, Foster would still be off the mark in his conjecture. Many of my high school classmates left home for college with stuffed animals, dolls, favorite clothing they had outgrown, even baby blankets that held special memories for them. No one claimed this proved they were not competent to earn their places at their universities.
I have questions about Foster’s superimposing negative FC literature on the mention of sexual abuse in the documentary as well. He said: “Messages about human sexuality also reflect old problems with FC. Facilitated communication has generated accusations that specific persons have molested FC users sexually. When subsequent investigations failed to support the FC-generated accusations (e.g., Siegel, 1995), it forced additional consideration about who was doing the accusing: the user or the facilitator? Likewise, when Deej’s computer-generated voiceover states “I see scary people who want sex” and his poetry refers to prostitution, viewers should wonder whether these words reflect Deej’s perspective on sexuality or a facilitator’s speculation.”
Let’s address the topic of FC-generated false reporting of sex crimes. Foster cites Siegel, 1995. But he doesn’t mention that this brief used only two subjects and did no general statistical analysis comparing the number of FC generated false reports to the number of false reports of the same crimes in the overall population. We all agree that the risk of a false indictment is dangerous. But we have no statistical understanding of how FC related false indictments compare to non-FC related false indictments. I am trying to understand how Siegel can generalize, or come to any conclusion from, her sample of two subjects, that the risk of false reporting/indictment is higher or lower than the general population. Siegel found that communication wasn’t established in these two subjects.
How can one confirm or deny anything without establishing communication with either subject? Dr. Siegel does not employ any other method of communication (a yes/no switch for example) to try and establish a baseline. We do not know if Dr. Siegal had the specialized training for this type of investigation. We don’t know how many interviews the two subjects were made to submit to because of their use of FC. Foster cites Dr. Siegel without mentioning her first sentence in paragraph 3 of the discussion section on page 325 where she states: “This study does not rule out the possibility that there are individuals who may communicate via facilitation when they cannot communicate orally, via sign language or via communication boards.” Indeed it cannot rule out the possibility because only two subjects were evaluated.
We are currently witnesses to the extremes of skepticism against science. I am concerned that approaching topics like FC that require longitudinal study, with confirmation bias like Foster’s, will push public opinion further away from the scientific community.
Foster’s brief exploration of Deej as a vehicle for encouraging improper forms of scientific reasoning confused me. He says, “Deej, the person, is not necessarily representative of the diverse group of people who have complex communication needs. Even if Deej were to demonstrate hidden intelligence, it would not prove that hidden intelligence is widely prevalent. This hasty generalization could be akin to making a documentary about Lionel Messi and suggesting that Argentinians are incredibly talented footballers. Hansson (2013) described the use of hand-picked examples as a “characteristic associated with pseudoscience.”
But isn’t Foster himself hand-picking examples of Deej’s documentary and lived experience to frame his own thesis in this review? Does Foster’s literature review then fit Hansson’s description of a characteristic associated with pseudoscience? Or is this further evidence of confirmation bias in Foster’s review?
I can’t stress enough that Foster’s statements reveal a lack of understanding of the challenges faced by non-speaking AAC users of any kind. When he said, “Still, evidence that Deej can communicate hidden intelligence independently is simply not there,” I again feel Foster is evaluating from his armchair without factoring the impact of autistic comorbid conditions and characteristics in his conclusions. Again Foster has no qualitative research on Deej to back up his assertion.
Foster’s unconcerned opining of Deej’s degree of disability is very similar to the racial bias found in medical doctors. I actually feel that if FC wasn’t part of the DEEJ documentary at all, Foster would have still approached his literary review with the presumption that Deej was incompetent, given his statment, “The documentary instead provides explanations for the lack of independent communication that follow the explanations provided by FC supporters generally. Deej’s computer-generated voiceover states that no assistive device can do what his mother does and that sometimes he experiences anxiety that disrupts his ability to communicate.”
I disagree with Foster’s implication that Deej is discussing his mother’s role as a facilitator alone. Foster does not mention the scene in the film when Deej’s grandparents tell his mother that she is the only consistent thing in Deej’s life during his stressful transition from the home he’s known most of his life to another state and an unknown university campus. Deej, in essence, loses everything from proximity to friends who have known him since early childhood to his father who can’t be with them during this transition. Foster also excludes the fact that by the end of the documentary, Deej has transitioned to the Oberlin dorms, and his mother’s role is reduced to simply managing his support team. The documentary mentions Deej’s relief at having his mother return to the role of just being his mother.
I want to talk about Foster’s mention of the use of a pen as a prompting object to direct Deej’s typing. There is tremendous hypocrisy in how psychologists compare their own methods to those used to support typing. Hand over hand techniques and other invasive prompting is common practice in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). ABA is the only therapy for autism with mandated insurance coverage in most states despite valid ethical concerns verified by recent research into ABA and PTSD in autistic clients. Behavioral psychologists do not claim that any writing done by hand over hand prompting is abusive of autistic clients. If you ask a behavioral psychologist why they are using hand over hand prompting they will tell you that the goal is to fade the invasive prompting over time so their clients eventually write independently. It is hypocrisy for psychologists to champion such methods, while dismissing the support of individuals who have physical barriers to typing.
While Foster included a non-apology to Deej’s family consistent with his policy on respectful skepticism, any heartfelt sincerity in such apologies is lost if those delivering them are undermining a human being’s right to be accepted as a competent contributing member of society while doing so.
And Foster’s flawed literature review, unfortunately, introduces a taint of confirmation bias to any future publication he pens on this topic. The documentary DEEJ deserves better and so does Deej Savarese himself. I recommend that anyone viewing DEEJ watch the film with an open mind. No one’s filtered view, including mine, should interfere with the sharing of one human being’s story of adoption, freedom, and hope for his marginalized peers.
- Nickerson, Raymond S. (June 1998), “Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises”, Review of General Psychology, 2 (2): 175–220
- Foster CA. Deej-a Vu: Documentary revisits facilitated communication pseudoscience. Behavioral Interventions. 2019;1–10 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bin.1687
- Foster, CA. Skepticism at heart is not partisan. Skeptical Inquirer 2017 https://skepticalinquirer.org/2017/01/skepticism_at_heart_is_not_partisan/
- Hagiwara, N., Slatcher, R. B., Eggly, S., & Penner, L. A. (2017). Physician Racial Bias and Word Use during Racially Discordant Medical Interactions. Health communication, 32(4), 401–408. doi:10.1080/10410236.2016.1138389
- Confirmation Bias https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias
- Kupferstein, Henny (January 2018) “Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis” Advances in Autism ISSN: 2056-3868 https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016/full/html
- UN calls for investigation of US school’s shock treatments of autistic children https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/jun/02/un-investigation-shock-treatments-autism
- School Shocks Students With Disabilities. The FDA Moves To Ban The Practice. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/23/687636057/massachusetts-school-defends-use-of-electric-shock-treatments
- The Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act#section_4
- Bruno Bettleheim, The Empty Fortress https://archive.org/details/emptyfortressinf00bett_0
- Leo Kanner’s infamous 1947 Time Magazine interview that began Bettelheim’s destruction of autistic children and their mothers with quotes like “The children, says Dr. Kanner, were “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost.” http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,798484,00.html
- Siegel, B. (1995). Brief report: Assessing allegations of sexual molestation made through facilitated communication. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 25(3), 319–326. doi: 10.1007/bf02179293
- Hansson, S. O. (2013). Defining pseudoscience and science. In M. Pigliucci, & M. Boudry (Eds.), Philosophy of pseudoscience: Reconsidering the demarcation problem (pp. 61–77). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226051826.003.0005