No, I’m Not a Horse: A Refutation of the Clever Hans Comparison to Autistic Typers

This is a horse.

This is a human.

This is Clever Hans. He was a horse in the early 1900s who looked like he was doing simple math equations by stomping his foot. Turns out he was just picking up cues from his handler.

Horses have no innate propensity to develop language, understand complex language or communicate in language. I love horses, but they are horses, not humans. Humans have an innate propensity to develop language, understand complex language and communicate in language; therefore even humans who lack typical access to verbal communication because of a disability still have the capacity to grasp language (except in extreme circumstances).

Humans who are deaf develop sign language.

Humans who can’t speak verbally type or use augmentative communication.

Humans with Down Syndrome understand and speak utilizing the complex patterns of language.

So, why is it so hard for some professionals to believe that humans with autism have innate language capacity?

For example, here is a course in the Applied Behavioral Analysis department at a university (instructor’s name removed), which is described this way:

Ever since Facilitated Communication (FC) crashed onto the shores of the U.S. in the early 1990s, remarkable claims of sophisticated communicative abilities in otherwise nonverbal people with autism have proliferated. FC itself has morphed into other forms, including the so-called Rapid Prompting method. However, regardless of the name, all of these techniques have one thing in common: They claim to show that previously nonverbal people with autism are in fact highly verbal and expressive so much so that the diagnosis of autism is sometimes questioned. This is not the first time in history in which remarkable claims of communication have been made about nonverbal individuals. Perhaps the most famous case was that of a horse in Germany around the turn of the 20th century, named Clever Hans. In this talk, Dr. X describes the story of Clever Hans, including the experiments carried out by the German psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, which revealed the nature of Hans’ cleverness, and its lessons for recent claims of remarkable communicativeness in people with autism. Dr. X urges the same level of scientific scrutiny regarding these claims as with Clever Hans, and suggest (sic) that all stakeholders in autism should approach remarkable claims skeptically and scientifically.

I will analyze this paragraph sentence by sentence.

Ever since Facilitated Communication (FC) crashed onto the shores of the U.S. in the early 1990s, remarkable claims of sophisticated communicative abilities in otherwise nonverbal people with autism have proliferated.

When I was in high school I learned in my English class about loaded language intended to bias the reader. FC “crashed on the shores.” Its claims of success are “remarkable,” because the typed communication of nonverbal people is “sophisticated.” Ha ha. You see, autistic people thinking and typing is a joke already.

FC itself has morphed into other forms, including the so-called Rapid Prompting method.

Here RPM is lumped with FC , the method that “crashed” on our shores, in an apparent attempt to discredit it. RPM is actually a different teaching method than FC, and though it is referred to as “the so-called Rapid Prompting Method,” that is the actual, copyrighted name of the method.

However, regardless of the name, all of these techniques have one thing in common: They claim to show that previously nonverbal people with autism are in fact highly verbal and expressive so much so that the diagnosis of autism is sometimes questioned.

This sentence is packed with disinformation. Nobody questions the autism of people who type except for those who don’t believe that severely autistic people understand language. By their logic, if an autistic person types he can’t be autistic. This is circular logic.

My old ABA supervisor said exactly this about Tito Mukhopadyhay because he communicates by typing independently. He stims. He has every autistic symptom in the books but since he is obviously communicating sophisticated thoughts he can’t be autistic. Ha ha. What would his correct diagnosis be then, and why was he diagnosed with autism as a young child before he typed? It is intriguing that these particular professionals don’t question whether their understanding of autism is correct when someone with autism comes along who challenges their theory. Rather, they claim that it’s the person who is incorrect. My book actually explains pretty thoroughly what it is like having autism.

This is not the first time in history in which remarkable claims of communication have been made about nonverbal individuals.

No, it is not. How can we present autistic communicators as a joke?

Perhaps the most famous case was that of a horse in Germany around the turn of the 20th century, named Clever Hans.

By comparing autistic people to animals. How witty.

In this talk, Dr. X describes the story of Clever Hans, including the experiments carried out by the German psychologist, Oskar Pfungst, which revealed the nature of Hans’ cleverness, and its lessons for recent claims of remarkable communicativeness in people with autism.

As I mentioned, I think a horse is an animal with no innate capacity for language and a person with autism is a human with innate capacity for language despite being severely hampered by bad theories, bad instruction and a severe mind/motor disconnect. (For more information on the mind/motor problem, please see my essay Motor Difficulties in Severe Autism.

Dr. X urges the same level of scientific scrutiny regarding these claims as with Clever Hans, and suggest (sic) that all stakeholders in autism should approach remarkable claims skeptically and scientifically.

By all means, skepticism is good. I have dealt with and convinced skeptics for many years. Biased, hostile people are not skeptics, nor scientists.  (See Scientific Un-Query and More on Scientific Un-Query). By the way, people who have autism are stakeholders too, as are their parents.

Science is filled with stories of people who introduced new theories only to be treated with scorn by professionals who toed the line of the day, but the theories were ultimately  proven to be correct. Now we laugh at the obtuseness of the critics in these cases, but they actually ruined lives and reputations.

I’m an autism expert. I didn’t study it in class. I didn’t teach ABA to kids. I did however live and breathe it. I learned that experts and professionals can be well meaning but wrong. I learned that I, and others who type, have much to teach about the truth of the disability. My expertise is solely based on empirical evidence and anecdote. I never ran tests on myself. Nevertheless, I know my nonverbal autism inside and out. My autism is a mind/motor disconnect. It isn’t a language processing issue. It isn’t cognitive delay. It is a real disability, hard to live with, and mostly it is painful to be unable to speak, but not speaking is not the same as not thinking.

 

 

 

 

21 responses to “No, I’m Not a Horse: A Refutation of the Clever Hans Comparison to Autistic Typers

  1. What a great post. As the parent of a non-verbal 16 year-old with autism, reading your book and subscribing to your blog was one of the best things I have ever done, both for my son and for my relationship with him. As you say, skepticism is appropriate, even welcome, in any new autism treatment (we’ve seen many come and go over the last 15 years). But it is hard to deny it when you see young people communicate like this with unassisted typing. Please keep on telling your story and sharing your life journey.

  2. Thank you! As always, Ido, you tell us how it actually is. Your “argument”, (if you will), for RPM is so important for those of us who are fighting for this method of communication. For the first time, my child is communicating in his own voice – and what a powerful voice it is! Now, he is having to battle against misinformation put out by ABA experts, (no matter how well meaning), in order to use RPM.
    It is certainly frustrating to read reviews of RPM in which the author has obviously not understood the method, or deliberately refers to it as “another form of facilitated communication”.
    Thanks to you, Ido, my son is typing independently on the keyboard, and is finally optimistic about his future.
    Thank you!

  3. Thank you Ido- what you wrote is so true- Your book is one of our favorite autism books by the way, we recommend it to everyone

  4. mary w maxwell

    Dear Ido,
    You say “I have much to teach about the truth of the disability.”
    I think you could put a period after the word ‘truth.’ I mean you have MUCH to teach about TRUTH.

    Granted, your subject matter at the moment is “autism.” But you are in no way limited to teaching people whose concern happens to be disability. In my view (having only met you through your book), you are an intellectual force. Just wait till you turn your sights to other subject matter. Watch out, world!

  5. Bravo! Wonderful post. I’m going to share it on FB and Twitter.

  6. Ido, thank you so much for fighting the good fight and being such a wonderful advocate for yourself and others. We have read your book and follow your blog. After I read about the elbow-touching prompts that helped you, I tried it out and our girl figured out how to clap!! You are part of the reason why we gave her a “talker” at 1 1/2 despite the naysayers (due to her age) and now at 2 1/2 she is doing wonderfully with it and communicates so much. The bias against non-speaking people is ridiculous and infuriating and I thank you and your family for all that you do for the community. We hope to do the same for others as well someday.. Cheers!

  7. Pingback: Thanks, Ido! | that Bloody Cat

  8. Fantastic! You are so right. A horse is a horse, and we are not horses. Or performing seals, or monkeys, or whatever.
    Now, if only we could get through to the professionals and the researchers, get them to see their bias… a few are, but not many. 🙁

  9. I have consistently found that some of the most eloquent and engaging writers have autism, mental health conditions or other disabilities. Such a good balance of personal/formal, structured/free expression in their writing. Perhaps it is because the process of expressing oneself is more difficult and time consuming, and therefore more is invested in it. The sentences have been crafted. Perhaps it is because people with autism or disability are naturally good writers. Perhaps they are more attuned to the world, more thoughtful, more sensitive. Regardless, after I have digested the content, I am often in awe of how it was expressed.

  10. Interestingly, there is a point about the Clever Hans effect which is not considered: It takes a great deal of ability to read body language to be able to pick up on cues the way Clever Hans did. Also, autistics (including those who could be considered to have Asperger’s) are commonly viewed as being bad at reading body language.
    Why, then, do those who have trouble believing that non-speaking autistics really communicate by typing, chalk up the communication to the Clever Hans effect? Especially since chalking up a person’s ability to do something (i.e. communicate) to the Clever Hans effect is actually chalking up a persons ability to do something (i.e. communicate) to an exceptionally acute skill with reading the subtlest of body language cues?
    Believe me, if it were generally possible for non-verbal autistics to do what Clever Hans did, we would not see so many autistics having trouble figuring out body language, and we certainly would not see Aspies who have that kind of trouble, and yet we do. Why do you think that is? Maybe it is because the Clever Hans effect is *not* actually a major influence on those who type to communicate, and maybe they are actually communicating. After all, when someone has a more “severe” form of any disability, they do not suddenly get much better at the main thing that is said to impair those who have a *less* “severe” form of the *same* disability.
    True, autistics may be better at picking up on certain emotional vibes (at least on a near-subconscious level) than many people think, and sometimes even better than neurotypicals, but, given some of the experiences I’ve had, I don’t believe that that is the same skill that Clever Hans used. In fact, I think that if picking up microscopic cues and picking up emotional vibes were the same skill, we wouldn’t have kids who sense that mommy and daddy are tense in a way they can’t quite identify and they might even identify as not liking mommy and daddy and yet at the same time can’t tell when it would be wiser to stop babbling something after a parent or other hostile adult has given a fairly obvious cue (think Prince Caspian of Narnia as a little boy). Even if it was, it seems that it should be no more ridiculous to consider the possibility that non-speaking autistics actually author their own words than to forcefully suggest that they have the extremely fine-tuned ability to read microscopic cues that is required for the Clever Hans effect to actually work.

  11. Brilliant post. Thank you. I will share with a few skeptics I know!

  12. Mary Ann Harrington

    I believe it is more than “Clever hands” but in my experience as a user of both RPM and FC, for many years with multiple partners, it is the same process. Both demand joint attention and focus on the material being typed. Both have a quantum energetic quantum like component. I hear the words being typed consistently in both strategies. This is consistent with the definition of inspired writing. The percentage of inspiration I am receiving directly from my autistic friends varies and is difficult to assess. Hopefully, my influence continues to dissolve as I mature with the process. I equate it to inspired writing where the inspiration is coming from the spirt realm or the Divine, which I believe my friends have access too. I open my heart, I join consciousness with them, I listen, I trust, I receive, andI support what is being typed. My typing friends have told me they are impressing images on my brainstem which I unconsciously helping my partners select the proper word for expression. No it is not “Clever Hands” it is something which accepted and experienced will shatter your current perception of reality. That said, I agree these magnificent souls have an ability way beyond the norm to pick up imperceptible cues typical people would miss. Perhaps it is a complement of the energetic entanglement. It is just another anomaly or savant ability which continues to be ignored or overlooked. Since I fully admit my process has an energetic component, I have chosen a new acronym. ECC-Energetically Connected Communication. PS-Physical Support. PT Physical touch of keyboard or PC-Proximity Control. If you want to learn more google my name Mary Ann Harrington and ECC.

    • violet jones

      Mary Ann, your comments, while perhaps well-meaning, diminish the independent typers’ abilities.
      For example, you are categorizing Rapid Prompting Method with FC, which is one of the reasons that my son is having difficulty with professionals who site the evidence against FC as the reason his independent typing cannot be believed.
      Honestly, as I sit and watch my son type, (independently, with no person touching either his ipad or his body), I have no idea what he will type out. Often, if I have asked him a specific question, I will predict the answer to some degree, but not word-for-word.
      It is misleading to suggest that all typers, or even those who point to letters on a letterboard or stencil, are using telepathy, (sorry if I am simplifying what you are saying).
      Overall, I am concerned that your words will not help others to see Ido’s words as being his own.

      • Hi Violet,
        I do agree with you. Communication partners need to be very careful not to be influencing the person with autism. If a method or practitioner is good it moves people toward more and more independence all the time. I would not be comfortable letting anyone work with my son if they told me they had an energy connected communication with him and could anticipate his thoughts and he wouldn’t be comfortable either.
        A partner needs rapport but they are not a soulmate.
        Hi Maryanne, Having looked into both, rpm is different than FC.

  13. Mary Ann harrington

    I am only talking, honestly about my own experience. I do not claim those using FC or RPM share my experience. In fact I renamed it ECC-Energetically Connected Typing to define it as separate. I do hear the words before they are being typed and their is an amazizing telepathic resonance between us. So for me, FC and Rpm are similar. When I first saw Soma, she was presenting at an FC Conference. It was before the FC, AAC, Sign, and RPM Disassociated. I continue to suggest overlapping strategies. We are hoping to get some a group of FC , Rpm, and ECC partners together along with multiple nonverbal people who type to communicate. We would be sharing experiences, and accepting each other’s experiences as valid. If interested, it would be wonderful to have and your son Ito join us and share your perspective.

  14. While I agree with your overall point, I do think you un-necessarily denigrate the communication capacity of horses. Anyone with riding experience or even a little observation knows the dialog of movement and sound that is communication with a working animal. That doesn’t mean I think Clever Hans could do sums, but I think you may lose a little trust with some readers when your characterization of horse capabilities doesn’t jive with their experiences.
    I’m very troubled with the state of the dialog about FC and other text to speech technologies. I have direct experience with two people with very idiosyncratic expressive language, so any perspective that sees them as fraudulent troubles me. And I have two sons who are nonverbal and so far can express only a small repertoire of statements using AAC. I do not like perspectives that mark them as less because their communication is more like that of a dog or a horse than a human — it relies on body posture, proximity, gesture, affect, and some vocalizations that are not words. They are fully human, and they will be so even if more robust language never emerges from them.
    But thank you, because I agree that the rationalist debunkers of FC take a dangerously narrow view of human experience and expression.

    • Hi Lynn,
      My point isn’t to denigrate horses. I like horses and I realize animals have sensitivity, intelligence and a means of communication. Hans was clearly intuitive. Nevertheless, horses have no language in the sense language is defined, of being able to communicate ideas, including past and future, conditional, and abstract thought, using grammar and a large vocabulary. Horses are pleased to be horses. They communicate just right for horses. My dogs have no need to communicate like people. They live long lives answering people by wagging tails, sniffing, barking and other dog methods of communication. I would not be happy if that was how I was pretty much left to communicate.
      Please know that basic communication is not full communication. Without typing I’d be left to basic communication. For me, RPM instruction gave me the ability to learn how to type to communicate.
      The point of my essay is that many, many nonverbal autistic people do understand language, have no means to let other people know their thoughts and ideas due to a mind/body communication breakdown, and that those who do learn to communicate are sometimes belittled by ignorant professionals.

  15. Let’s assume for the moment that you are Clever Hans. Did you write the long blog post with someone standing in front of you, wildly (but completely unconsciously) gesticulating to convey the words to you? Or were you alone? I wonder what psychic phenomena this professor would call upon to explain how your “handler” transferred the information to your hands?

    Oh right. They have the wonderfully circular argument that you can’t be autistic because you succeed at the task that he/she has defined as impossible to autistics. Even though that definition flies in the face of the DSM, or just about anyone qualified to make an autism diagnosis. They’ve presented a study where they prove that autistics can’t possibly be communicating by de-diagnosing anyone who can.

    It’s astounding what passes as critical thought in academia sometimes.

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