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Rom Houben: Not communicating through facilitated communication

The news is finally filtering out to the rest of the world.

As Steve Novella and my good buddy pointed out a few days ago (and as Steve pointed out in an interview on NPR), Dr. Steven Laureys admitted that Rom Houben, the unfortunate victim of a car crash that left him in what had been diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state, was in fact not able to communicate through the woo known as facilitated communication. This came as no surprise to anyone who has followed FC over the years. In fact, what had come as a surprise is that Dr. Laureys could have been so easily taken in by pseudoscience that had been so thoroughly debunked in the 1990s. To his credit, though, after a period of initially stubbornly defending FC, he relented and allowed objective testing, and the result was predictable. It took a few days, but the English language world is learning of the failure of FC in Houben’s case:

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was. The story of Rom Houben of Belgium, which made headlines worldwide last November when he was shown to be “talking”, was today revealed to have been nothing of the sort.

Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben’s apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared.

“We did not have all the facts before,” he said. “To me, it’s enough to say that this method doesn’t work.” Just three months ago the doctor was proclaiming that Houben had been trapped in his own body, the victim of a horrendous misdiagnosis, and only rescued from his terrible plight thanks to medical advances.

What was not reported is that skeptics were involved in the testing of Rom Houben. I recently received a statement from the Belgian Skeptics (SKEPP):

At the request of the medical institution where Mr Houben is cared for, on February 4 2010 SKEPP was present as advisor for a planned test of this controversial method of communication, and we also conducted our own tests. From the staff of the institute we learned that during two years all attempts to establish any form of communication with the patient by detecting and coding minute movements of the eyes or any other body part had failed. With FC he now seemed to produce correct words and elaborate sentences. Indeed, his answers to our simple test questions were intelligible and sometimes elaborate, but when the facilitator did not know the questions, his answers were all completely wrong. Most of the time he typed with his eyes closed, but as soon as the keyboard was shielded from the facilitator’s view the typing produced gibberish and halted. There clearly was no communication with the patient, only with the facilitator. We wonder what world-shaking news there would have been to communicate if it hadn’t been for the spectacular answers the facilitator produced.

Our intent was to not to test Mr Houben, but to test FC, and once more we demonstrated that the method is a sham. This is not to deny that Mr Houben may have some limited consciousness. If so, how frustrating must it be for him to hear all the bogus messages being produced in his name, without any possibility to protest ? After our test we had a long conversation with Dr. Laureys. He insisted that we test more facilitators before drawing conclusions. We declined and advised him to clearly distance himself from the FC scam, which he has done today. Out of respect and to allow them time to discuss the results with the family and the dedicated staff, we agreed on a 2 weeks embargo before making the results of our test public. Of course, not everyone is convinced yet. In a phone conversation today Mr Houben’s mother told us that she still believes in FC, because “sometimes it had produced answers that only her son could have known”. She is convinced that Dr. Laureys will ultimately find a method to communicate with her son. His team is experimenting with other methods. Let’s hope her wish comes true.

Indeed.

I want to emphasize once again that those of us who blasted FC in the wake of this case said nothing about whether Mr. Houben is conscious or not. We merely pointed out that FC is a long-discredited sham and, from evidence of videos available on the Internet, clearly could not be a mechanism by which Houben communicated if he in fact has consciousness. I and others have also pointed out that it’s horrible enough to be conscious and trapped in a motionless, useless shell, but imagine how much more horrible it would be to be conscious, trapped in a motionless shell, and having the only hope for communication with the outside world coopted by a facilitator.

In any case, props to SKEPP. They done good. Real good. Now let’s hope that, if Houben is conscious, Dr. Laureys, chastened by this experience, will find a way to communicate with Houben that isn’t based on the ideomotor effect and wishful thinking.

Posted in: Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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