Guest post by Tracy Kedar (my mom)
When Ido was small he was in an ABA program that carefully documented all of his responses to discrete trial drills. In a huge logbook divided by the specific drill outcomes being measured, the exact number of his correct responses, incorrect responses, number of trials, and whether prompts were needed was recorded. The data clearly indicated the exact number of words Ido understood, which they measured as not being very many, with the belief that the only way he acquired new vocabulary was by being taught it in drills. The proof of mastery was the accurate pointing to the word on flashcards consistently.
When Ido began to express coherent ideas in normal English via writing, the scientifically gathered drill data made his ABA team convinced that this was simply not possible. It was inconceivable to them that Ido could understand and express grammatically correct, vocabulary rich English because their data evidence proved all he knew was far less.
Autistic kids I have met and seen communicate by iPad, keyboard, or letter board, without tactile support, still face dismissive letters whenever they appear in the media written by total strangers who are absolutely certain that the journalists were derelict in publishing a fraudulent story. The reporters are accused of not doing “due diligence” by telling the story of a nonverbal autistic kid who “miraculously, overnight” can communicate, despite the process leading to typing fluency being one of years.
Not long ago a skeptic professor in our area from the psychology department of one university spoke to an audience of university students studying ABA at another to show how unscientific and improbable it was that autistic people could communicate fluently by typing. He scoffed at RPM which he called “dangerous,” and laughed at how unscientific it was. He was alarmed at stories of kids like Ido appearing in the media.
This scholar, like so many of the writers of the skeptical letters, stated that he spoke on behalf of scientific methodology. He was firm in his belief that the data collected in discrete trial drills proved the fallacy of these severely autistic communicators, since data didn’t lie. I agree with him that the data collected in Ido’s old ABA drills were completely accurate. The recorded notes accurately indicated whether he got answers right, wrong, how many trials, and whether a prompt was needed. Where I differ from the professor is what it means. To him, the data was clear proof of Ido’s low receptive language processing, limited cognition and the impossibility of advanced comprehension. To me, the data simply reflected his ability at that time to accurately point to the card requested.
Those nonverbal autistic individuals who have learned to type are consistent in describing themselves as having a frustrating mind body disconnect. They state that while they understand what they hear, they cannot get their bodies to obey their minds with the kind of consistency and reliability that is necessary to prove it. Ido devoted several chapters of his book to describe and explain this challenging neurological experience and he describes how instruction and practice, using very particular techniques, helped him to develop the ability to overcome these challenges enough to be able to communicate his thoughts, first by pointing to very large letters on a letter board held at eye level, and ultimately, as control improved, by typing on small ones on an iPad or keyboard on tabletop.
So yes, the drill data is accurate. The question is whether their hypothesis explaining why this occurs is correct. If the scholar and skeptics are correct and the drill data is a reflection of all the cognitive understanding that lies within a person, then of course children once thought to be low functioning who now claim to type and read and write fluently are to be viewed with alarm. Their achievements are viewed as “clever Hans” phenomena and any support they receive is seen as suspect.
On the other hand, if what the people with autism say is true, then the data is useless in those cases because all it measures is whether they could get their hand to obey their mind at any given trial and doesn’t reflect their capacity or knowledge. Consequently, the efficacy of the treatment becomes the issue.
Given these divergent possibilities, one would think that those who state they are proponents of science and scientific methodology would be lining up to meet those people with autism who have known histories as “low functioning,” complete with videos, reports, and school records, who now communicate fluently by typing, often with no tactile support at all, and who receive and thrive in general academic educations.
How is possible for anyone to determine that a person is not really communicating solely from reading a newspaper article or watching a television news short? Rather than showing the kind of scientific inquiry that is supposedly the hallmark of science, these folks seem to treasure data collection to confirm an existing theory over a willingness or curiosity to explore whether there is more that could be learned, even if it means that some of their ideas have been incorrect. That doesn’t seem scientific to me. It’s circling the wagons.