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Gittin 61a: The Dangers of Facilitated Communication

My column this week was going to be about Rav Chisda and rabbinic “absolute theft,” but I decided to shift topic, based on Rabbi Efram Goldberg’s recent op-ed (“The Shul With the Worst Decorum in the World,” July 13, 2023). His article was beautiful and well-written, and praised the chesed of the malachim who work at HASC and the wonderful—if alternative—tefillah of HASC campers. However, he then veered off to discussing facilitated communication—though he did not use the term—and I feel that the topic is worth discussing.

To connect this to daf yomi, the mishna on Gittin 59b discusses practices which don’t operate on a biblical level but were instituted because of “darchei shalom—ways of peace.” If a cheresh, shoteh or katan pick up a lost item, by biblical law anyone could just grab it from them, but this was forbidden because of darchei shalom. This is because these three lack the requisite daat—a level of sophisticated intellect, to effect a legal acquisition. Rabbi Yossi, a tanna, disagrees and says that it is absolute theft, which Rav Chisda clarifies (on Gittin 61a) that this is absolute theft on a rabbinic level, with the practical difference from darchei shalom that this theft could even be litigated in court. Even for people without this level of daat, we can show compassion and look out for their interests.

It, certainly, is possible that this level of daat is present even if not overt. Chagiga 3a relates a case of two mute brothers, either grandsons or nephews of Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgoda, in Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s neighborhood. When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi entered the study hall, they would enter and sit before the sages, nodding their heads and moving their lips. Eventually, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi prayed for them and they were healed. And, it turned out that they had learned all those years, and were proficient in many realms of Torah study. On the other hand, deaf-mutes in those days would not have been able to receive the auditory input to learn, and to develop their minds to become sophisticated. Nowadays, “nishtaneh hateva—nature has changed.” Not really, but with developments such as sign language and means of teaching deaf people, we would no longer say that a cheresh lacks this daat by virtue of not hearing.

In his well-meaning article, Rabbi Goldberg described how the “experts” (with scare quotes) had diagnosed that Zev, a 15-year-old low-functioning autistic individual, had the intelligence of an 18-month-old. To quote, “But in the last few years, Zev and his similar friend and fellow camper, Srulik, have worked with an extraordinary communication therapist who utilized the latest techniques to teach them how to type and communicate non-verbally. It turns out that while on the outside Zev and Srulik seem developmentally stunted, often unable to understand, they take it all in and are filled with deep thoughts, ideas and divrei Torah. Last month, in honor of his sister’s wedding, Zev’s parents published a booklet of his Torah thoughts that he typed letter by letter.”

If this were only the case, then, this would have major halachic implications. Zev would be parallel to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s mute talmidei chachamim. Alas, it isn’t true.

A bit later: “Externally, he was ‘broken,’ disabled and, seemingly, a typical individual with special needs. On the inside, he was whole, smart, capable, thoughtful and articulate. The staff member who introduced me to Zev and his divrei Torah told me this breakthrough not only enormously transformed the way he views Zev, but it has also had a tremendous impact on the way he views all the campers, especially the non-verbal ones.” I think that we can value these autistic individuals as fellow human beings—created betzelem Elokim—even if, internally, they are not just the same as us, “whole,” “thoughtful” and “articulate” individuals.

 

The Problems

The claim of those who practice facilitated communication is that the autistic person simply has mechanical trouble communicating, or moving their hands appropriately. Therefore, they will take a large card resembling an Ouija board (used in the occult to channel spirits), will take the hand of the autistic person, and intuit which letter the autistic person “wants” to point to. In many videos of such communication with low-functioning autistics, you can see them with their eyes closed, looking the other way or rolling around on the floor, as the human facilitator jerks their hand from one letter to the other. In other cases, they guide the use of a computer keyboard, and also use predictive text technology (such as is found on your phone—suggesting the next word to type—which is related to the technology behind Chat-GPT).

The simplest scientific explanation for both the Ouija board and facilitated communication is the ideomotor effect, in which a person (here, the facilitator) subconsciously is drawn to move his hand to the letter he wants to appear. The facilitator is not a scammer, but actually believes that these messages are authentic. Still, when information is known or should be known to the autistic individual (such as the name of the family dog) but not the facilitator, they answer incorrectly. When only the facilitator knows the information, they answer correctly.

Zev, surely, wants his family to win a million dollars. There is a million dollar prize from the James Randi Educational Foundation for demonstrating that facilitated communication works, with no tricks, but so far, the prize has been unclaimed. They try to debunk the supernatural, but this is, purportedly, a scientific phenomenon which should withstand scrutiny.

Among the problems arising from facilitated communication are false claims of sexual abuse—purportedly asserted by the autistic child—but really coming from the facilitator, resulting in the removal of children from their parents’ home. There have also been cases of facilitators unwittingly sending themselves romantic messages from the disabled individuals, which, then, led to engaging in sexual abuse.

 

Theological Dangers

It feels somewhat mean to yank away this hope from the families of severely autistic people, but this is false hope. There are also very real theological dangers—ones that I am not making up—but which have already arisen. I debated this online back in 2007 on GlobalYeshiva, but the website archives have, unfortunately, been lost.

Writing a book of divrei Torah for a sister’s wedding seems wonderful, but it is a gateway drug to using words purportedly from autistics in the religious realm. There are people who claim (in the name of the autistic individuals) that autistics have the status of a “shoteh,” and in Bava Batra 12b, Rabbi Yochanan states that after the Temple’s destruction, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to the shotim and tinokot. (This undercuts the claim that these are whole, articulate people, just physically unable to otherwise communicate.) In answer to the aforementioned issues of the child’s eyes being closed, looking away or falling asleep, the proponents answer that it is not the child’s conscious mind answering the question, but his/her soul.1

They, then, provide halachic pronouncements from on high, such as that ice cream and pizza are forbidden, or that sheitels are forbidden and any rabbi telling you otherwise should be ignored. They act as nevi’ei sheker—false prophets, declaring knowledge that the apocalypse and Mashiach are imminent, so everyone must make aliyah right now (in 2007) or it will be too late. People consult with them to find the future, or know halacha, in ways that violate “tamim tiheyeh im Hashem Elokecha.”

Thus, while we have compassion for everyone involved, and understand the motivations for wanting this to be true, we also should not latch on to pseudoscience. It seems better, on a pragmatic, halachic and hashkafic level, to nip this in the bud. Rabbi Goldberg, and the camp counselor, can, nonetheless, see the tzelem Elokim in these individuals.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

 

1 To quote one mother: “One day, Galia fell asleep in the middle of a session, but her hand continued to write. I asked her, ‘Galia, how can it be that you’re sleeping and your hand continues to write?’ She wrote back, ‘Mum, you’re communicating with my soul, and souls never sleep.’ I communicate with Galia through her soul, not through her intellect. Her intellect is that of a five-month-old infant.”

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