BY MIRIAM RINN
In 1993, PBS’s documentary series “Frontline” did a show on facilitated communication, a process where an assistant, or facilitator, helps someone who cannot speak clearly express himself via keyboard. The facilitator sits very close to the speechless person, guiding his arm or hand to type out messages. Most of the people using facilitated communication in the show suffered from autism, a condition that often leaves people unable to speak.
The “Frontline” program suggested strongly that the process was a fraud, that the facilitators were either consciously or unconsciously manipulating the arms of the people to type out messages that they, the facilitators, wanted them to express. Evidence of that included the fact that the communications were poems, long, complex sentences, and sophisticated concepts, even for very young children. Most medical associations and advocacy organizations rejected the process as well, calling it unscientific and unproven. (Disclosure: My son is a BCBA who trains teachers to work with children with autism.)
The Syracuse University professor of special education who introduced facilitated communication to the U.S., Douglas Bilken, is the producer of the new documentary, “Wretches & Jabberers.” The film follows Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonette, two middle-aged men with autism, and their long-time assistants as they travel to Thailand, Japan, and Finland, advocating for people with autism and expressing themselves through facilitated communication. Both men live in Vermont. Larry, the calmer and gentler of the two, lives with his sister. We see him prepare breakfast for her — coffee and pancakes — in what appears to be a loving way. Tracy, who spent many years institutionalized, has no permanent home, but travels among temporary spaces, sometimes ending up in a state emergency shelter.
The film focuses almost entirely on Larry and Tracy, their assistants, and the people they meet on their travels. There are no medical experts or talking heads filling in background. Director Gerardine Wurzburg doesn’t explain why Tracy cannot live independently or find a permanent residence. Indeed, the film contains almost no information about autism, which is a spectrum disorder, or the widely different symptoms people with autism may exhibit. It doesn’t explain why Larry and Tracy need anyone to guide their hands, yet we always see their assistants right next to them, often holding an elbow or a forearm. After all, if Larry can make coffee in the morning and paint in the afternoon (he’s an artist), why can’t he manage a keyboard or some other speech-augmenting device?
As Larry and Tracy visit autism advocates in foreign countries (all of whom also express themselves through facilitated communication), we hear them “say” the same things over and over. Tracy always talks about his hidden intelligence and his anger at being categorized as mentally retarded. Larry likes to deliver inspirational messages to the conference crowds about perseverance and treating people with disabilities with respect. One of the men types out “Autism is not abnormality of brain, but abnormality of experience.“ The men don’t seem to have much to say about the different sights and sounds and foods they are experiencing, even though you’d expect a place like Thailand to seem very strange to a Vermonter. Larry exhibits a sense of humor at times, as well as childish intransigence when it comes to new foods.
It’s difficult to judge “Wretches & Jabberers.” As a documentary, it’s peculiarly uninformative. Someone who knows nothing about autism, its symptoms, and its treatments will learn very little. We hear almost nothing from the parents of the autistic young adults, or from their teachers, if they have any. As a film, it seems repetitive; every visit is basically the same. Larry and Tracy land in a different place, have their problems adjusting, meet some people with autism who use facilitated communication, and deliver the same message at a conference. Wurzburg never mentions that FC is controversial, that many scientists believe it’s a fraud, or that some have found it useful. She does capture the warmth between the two men, however, which is touching, and their occasional delight.
Unlike most documentaries, this film is getting a big opening across the country at AMC theaters through an arrangement between AMC and the Autism Society.