Wired Science Reborn Coma Man’s Words May Be Bogus
By Brandon Keim
November 24, 2009 5:31 pm
The statements of a Belgian man believed to be in a coma for 23 years, but recently discovered to be conscious, are poignant, but experts say they may not be his words at all. Rom Houben’s account of his ordeal, repeated in scores of news stories since appearing Saturday in Der Spiegel, appears to be delivered with assistance from an aide who helps guide his finger to letters on a flat computer keyboard. Called “facilitated communication,” that technique has been widely discredited, and is not considered scientifically valid.
“If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don’t trust it,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics. “I’m not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly.”
Facilitated communication came to prominence in the late 1970s after an Australian teacher reportedly used it to communicate with 12 children rendered speechless by cerebral palsy and other disorders. Over the next two decades, it gained some adherents in patient and medical communities, but failed to produce consistent results in controlled, scientific settings.
Researchers said that facilitators were unconsciously or consciously guiding patients’ hands. Multiple professional organizations, including the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say that facilitated communication is not credible.