A Rutgers-Newark professor on trial for sexually assaulting a disabled man claimed earlier this week that she and the alleged victim were in a romantic and sexual relationship despite his (apparent) inability to communicate.
Prof. Anna Stubblefield claims that the man, identified as D.J. and who suffers from cerebral palsy, consented to sex through a controversial and largely discredited technique called facilitated communication (FC).
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As NewJersey.com reporter Bill Wichert noted,
The state's experts have said the 34-year-old man, known as D.J., is unable to speak and has intellectual and physical disabilities, but Stubblefield claimed "he wasn't intellectually impaired at all," and that he could communicate by typing on a keyboard with her assistance. "None whatsoever," Stubblefield said when her attorney asked if she had any doubts about whether the relationship was consensual. "Because I knew he was the one who was saying everything that he typed." As they became romantically involved, Stubblefield said "it was initiated on both sides," and they made sure each other "was good with what was happening." She referred to their romance as "just a regular relationship."
Validity Questions In the 1980s many parents of autistic children turned to facilitated communication, which had been claimed to help autistic individuals, and especially children, to communicate. The technique is based on the idea that an autistic child's inability to communicate is caused not by a brain disorder but instead a muscular or nerve disorder that prevents them from producing speech. (Stubblefield claims that is the case with D.J., though his doctors state that he is not just physically but also mentally impaired.)
In "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," authors Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein and John Ruscio describe facilitated communication: "In the early 1990s, shortly after FC was introduced to the United States, scores of enthusiastic facilitators reported astonishing success stories of previously uncommunicative autistic individuals typing out eloquent sentences, at times speaking of their sense of liberation upon at last being able to express their imprisoned feelings. Yet numerous controlled studies soon showed that FC was entirely a product of unintentional facilitator control over autistic children's hands movements. Without even realizing it, facilitators were leading children's fingers to the keys."
In other words the words and messages were coming from the facilitators-those holding the patients' hands, wrists, and fingers-who were unconsciously typing out what they thought the patient might express if he or she could.
While many of the false messages were harmless or heartwarming (such as poetry and appreciate notes to caregivers), others described threats or even sexual abuse that never occurred.
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In fact last year facilitated communication played a key role in the murder of an 8-year-old autistic boy. Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan admitted killing her son with a lethal dose of medications in February 2010, but claimed she did it to spare him from sexual abuse at the hands of her ex-husband.
Since her son, like D.J., was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan used FC to, she believed, communicate with him. Police investigated her complaints and found no evidence of any abuse. Nevertheless Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of exposing him to more abuse. Jordan was found guilty in November and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Stubblefield's trial raises thorny legal questions about when and how disabled adults can consent to sexual activity, as well as the nature of D.J.'s impairment. If, as seems to be the case, Stubblefield genuinely believes in the validity of facilitated communication-the bulk of scientific evidence notwithstanding-then the jury may be left with a difficult question of whether to convict her of sexual assault even though she genuinely believed she had his consent.