Possible aversive reactions to PCT evidence: using a case of autism research
Date: Jan 15, 1995
Author: William T. Powers
Bill used a case of autism research to warn Bruce that people only believed what they wanted to believe. Presenting hard evidence could make “labelled as a nut and isolated from his colleagues”. Bruce and Martin later suggested a potential autism research.
Bruce Abbott (RE: Habits, association)
A word about getting other psychologists to explain these control phenomena.
Mary recorded a PBS “Frontline” program on “facilitated communication” with autistic children; I saw it last night. After spending half an hour showing how beautifully it works, the program then turned to the problems. The problems arose when all over the country, autistic children were communicating that they had been sexually abused by father, mother, sibling, grandfather, grandmother, teacher, and just about everyone else. Children were being removed from their parents and being put in foster care.
So a lawyer got a psychologist to think up a test to see who was originating the communications, and the psychologist came up with a dilly. He showed one picture to the facilitator and another to the autistic child. When both pictures showed the same object, the autistic child and facilitator pecked out the keys on the alphabet board to produce the right name of the object. When the objects were different, however, the name that was written was the name of the object the facilitator saw. In 180 trials where the pictures were different, there was not a single instance of the “communicated” name being the object the autistic child saw. This was repeated over and over; in all the tests where the pictures were different, there was not a single instance of the communicated word describing what the child saw. What was communicated was ALWAYS what the facilitator saw.
You might be thinking “fraud,” but that is not what it was. What it was was BELIEF. The facilitators, trained in a university program devoted to facilitated communication, cooperated fully in the tests, confident that the results would dispose of all questions about facilitated communication. When they saw the experimental results, they were completely devastated. One woman said that several months had to pass before she could keep from bursting into tears every time she thought about it. A man said that the experience was just like dying for him: everything he believed in and valued was destroyed. This was a widespread reaction, because many facilitators participated in the tests. They were not frauds; they desperately wanted to help the autistic children, and they really thought they were restoring them to normal communications and a normal life. They were sure the tests would vindicate their work.
The outcome was that many facilitated communication programs around the country were shut down, and the people went back to the old methods, just trying to help a little. But the most important fact was that many parents and facilitators banded together to survive what they saw as an unfair and biased attack. They simply ignored the results of the tests, despite the 100% proof that all the communications originated from the facilitators and none from the autistic children. They continued to believe that their children were conversing with them, learning Shakespeare and algebra, and earning As in high school and college (yes, college), always, of course, with a facilitator present.
By now the moral of my story is probably evident. When we come up with demonstrations that positively prove that behavior is the control of perceptions, we may think that gaining support is simply a matter of showing the evidence and letting it speak for itself, after which the conventional psychologist will say, “Oh, yes, I see. How interesting. I guess I’ll have to use that interpretation now.” That is not what will happen. What will happen is that some people will be profoundly shaken, even devastated, by these demonstrations, if they are capable of admitting what their own eyes are telling them. In many instances their careers will be destroyed and they will be unable to continue the kind of work they had always done. Everything they had thought they had accomplished in life, helping people or furthering scientific knowledge, will lie in ruins. Not everyone will be so destroyed, but many will.
And what of the rest? What about the people who look at the demonstrations and simply refuse to believe them? These, I am afraid, will be in the majority. Their reactions will range from indifference to outrage. They will behave just like those facilitators and parents who could not bear to face the implications of the tests, who said they just KNEW that facilitation worked and had brought their sick children back to life. And psychologists will behave this way for very much the same reasons.
So, Bruce, when you start handing out your data to other psychologists to analyze, I hope you will be prepared for the consequences. This could cause very great problems for you. You could find yourself labelled as a nut and isolated from your colleagues. You will be attacking the very foundations of many beliefs, no matter how kindly your manner or how gentle your persuasion. If the PCT model of behavior is anywhere close to the truth about how behaviour works, then practically every other conception of it is wrong. You don’t have to say that. The data will say it, to those who can stand to see what they mean. Those who see it will be your triumphs, but those who refuse — they will be a problem.
Best to all, Bill P.
Potential PCT research on Autism - Bruce Abbott
Mary recorded a PBS “Frontline” program on “facilitated communication” with autistic children; [quote cut]
I saw this myself some time ago, and was quite impressed with it. It strongly reminded me of the old “Clever Hans” story, in which a retired German mathematics professor had become convinced that his horse could reason and even solve problems in arithmetic. In that case also, it was a psychologist (Oskar Phungst) who showed that Hans “knew” the answer to a question being posed to him only if his owner or the audience did AND the horse could see them.
But speaking of autism, here in the department we have an associate faculty member and full-time clinician with whom I was conversing a few days ago about (what else?) PCT. I mentioned that it would be interesting to conduct a study on autistic children to determine how their control systems differ from those of more normal children, and suggested that the differences most likely involve fairly high levels in the hierarchy. It turns out that the guy works with autistic children in his practice and that there are apparently defects in the low-level control systems as well. He became very interested in what I had to say and asked about whether our library has a copy of B:CP. I lent him my copy.
There may be a very nice opportunity here for some research, which would apply the Test to determine what perceptions young autistic children control as compared to non-autistic kids of the same age, and how well they are able to do it. It also would be interesting, I think, to sit one of these autistic kids down at a computer terminal and have him or her run through some of the tracking tasks.
Reply from William T. Powers
But speaking of autism, here in the department we have an associate faculty member and full-time clinician with whom I was conversing a few days ago about (what else?) PCT. [quote cut]
There may be a very nice opportunity here for some research, which would apply the Test to determine what perceptions young autistic children control as compared to non-autistic kids of the same age, and how well they are able to do it.
As Tom Bourbon has discovered, even people with terribly dis-coordinated motor behavior can in fact do tracking tasks in a recognizeable way – you should probably get your friend in touch with Tom directly, to discuss his observations and how he would go about setting up an experiment.
IF you can get autistic people to do the tracking task at all (1 cursor, of course), I would be electrified. My impression (uninformed) is that it’s hard to get them to pay attention to any task. If you could get them to do a tracking task, or any kind of instrumented control task, you would know what they are perceiving and you would know what their intention is. These tracking experiments are awfully simple, but when you think about them, they provide a NONVERBAL window into at least one little aspect of a person’s internal experiences, a window that with patience and persistence could probably be opened wider. If I were to watch an autistic person doing a control task, I would feel that I was sharing an experience with that person, possibly the first kind of contact I would ever have had past that baffling exterior.
I hope we can all follow through on this. It may be another frustrating dead end, but considering the plight of autistic people, it’s worth a good try. One can easily understand how the facilitated-communication people let their hearts lead their heads. Of course we would have to be extra-careful about that.
Best to all, Bill P.
Reply from Martin Taylor
Date: Jan 16, 1995
Author: Martin Taylor
I recommend (re-)reading Donna Willams’ “Nobody, Nowhere,” and to a lesser degree the follow-up “Somebody Somewhere.” Donna many times notes that autism seems (from the inside) to be largely a problem of controlling one’s perceptions; the inner (imagination) world is much easier to control than the outer, and the autist has what she sees as a very impoverished set of perceptions of what we would call higher-level constructs. She sees many blades of grass rather than a lawn, for example, and sees almost nothing of what we would call emotion in other people. The autist does control in the outer world where possible, using repetitive actions or laying out symmetrical sets of objects and the like; but has great problems “controlling what she cannot perceive.” (I put that in quotes because it’s obviously not a good phrase, but I don’t know how else to put it). We, non-autistic people, want the autist to seem to control perceptions the autist hasn’t developed. The autist doesn’t know what it is that we expect them to be perceiving and controlling.
As a therapist for autistic children, Donna takes advantage of her inside knowledge of what autism is about, allowing (helping in the non-interfering sense) them to control something that they CAN control, and (it seems to me) allowing them a perception THAT they are controlling a perception. And she avoids so far as she can getting them into a situation in which they think they are being asked to control a perception they don’t have or can’t consistently affect.
Never having seen an autistic child at first hand, I can obviously not make any informed comments. But I do think that Donna Williams’ writings should be a major sourcebook for anyone seriously interested in the subject. Also, as I mentioned in Durango 93, I think “Nobody, Nowhere” is a textbook of PCT.
Last observation on autism: There is a condition known as “hyperlexia,” almost the inverse of dyslexia, though it often occurs in children in families that have a history of dyslexia. "The hyperlexic child has general language and cognitive problems but nevertheless learns very early to read. The child reads avidly, even though he may be classified as autistic, not reacting much to people and things in the world around him. (Healy, et.al. 1982)…
Hyperlexics may be much better than normal skilled readers at recognizing words composed of mutilated letters (Cobrink, 1982)…Although hyperlexics are highly skilled in recognizing words, they are poor in integrating words into sentence contexts (Richman % Kitchell, 1981)… Many hyperlexic children are autistic, and autistic children tend to lack LH specialization for language
(Dawson et al, 1982)." (from Taylor and Taylor, The psychology of reading, Academic Press 1993, p254)
[Internal references: Healy, Aram, Horwitz & Kessler, 1982, A Study of hyperlexia, Brain and Language, 17, 1-23. Cobrink, L., 1982. The performance of hyperlexic children on an “incomplete words” task. Neuropsychologia, 20, 569-577 Richman & Kitchell, 1981. Hyperlexia as a variant of developmental language disorder. Brain and language, 12, 203-212. Dawson, Warrenburg and Fuller, 1982, Cerebral lateralization in individuals diagnosed as autistic in early childhood. Brain and Language, 15, 353-368.]
Remember that Donna Williams was very good at music, but often found that either spoken or written language “turned off” for her under stressful conditions.
I hope we can all follow through on this. It may be another frustrating dead end, but considering the plight of autistic people, it’s worth a good try.
Is it worth trying to make contact through Donna Williams? I imagine that her publisher could pass on a letter so that she could participate if she felt it useful to do so.
After reading Oliver Sacks (1995) account of autism (and some other ‘disorders’) in An Anthropologist on Mars (featuring Temple Gradin) recently, I have been thinking about understanding autism from a PCT perspective, and also came up with this interesting notion that autistic people find it difficult to ‘go up a level’ in structuring their perceptions. They tend to see the trees, not the forest. A high level functioning autistic person might be very good (at least better than me) in controlling program level perceptions in a very consistent and detailed way, but will get lost when you ask him ‘why is this important?’.
So from the message above we have a hunch:
- it could be that in autistic people it is easier to control perceptions in imagination than in the environment (how could that work? What’s happening at the sensory level?)
- It could be the case that the perceptual control hierarchy is ‘underdeveloped’ (compared to non-autistic persons) in a way that makes it more difficult to control perceptions at a higher level. How could that work?
Has anyone followed up with the questions and ideas presented above? Is there any research published? One colleague of mine has recently started learning MOL (and consequently, PCT) and does research into autism, and I’d love to work with her to further our understanding of (high level functioning, adult) autism.