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'The Simpsons' baby sign language recalls something more sinister


‘The Simpsons’ baby sign language recalls something more sinister

A funny enough concept, until someone uses it to take advantage of parents.

Last week’s episode of The Simpsons, Screenless, was centered on Marge trying to bring her family closer by limiting and even eliminating “screen time” for everyone, thinking the lack of phones and tablets would force Homer and the kids to talk to each other more.  It somehow succeeded in getting infant Maggie to talk, through something the show referred to as “baby sign language.”

Of course, Simpsons (already) did it WAAAAY back in 1992, with season 3’s Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes? when Homer’s long-lost sibling Herb (voiced by Danny DeVito) creates a world-changing helmet that translates baby talk. You know, back before parents were gripped by technophobia.

'The Simpsons' baby sign language recalls something more sinister

There is no magical device that will tell you your non-verbal child’s deepest desires, but baby sign language is an actual thing (sort of). Some people have tried to adapt words from American Sign Language for parents to help communicate with their babies. As you might expect, signs for words like “drink” (which actually mimics the drinking motion) are retained better than other, more abstract signs.

Proponents and opponents of baby sign language argue conversely either that it helps or hinders a child’s acquisition of spoken language, but research seem to show it’s pretty much a wash, not making much of a difference either way. In any case, it’s definitely not a “language” in the traditional sense of the term, as there is no structure or grammar, and it’s basically just hand motions for words that children of that age should be learning or already have learned in the first place. In that sense, it’s kind of like the “sign language” sometimes used by humans to communicate with other apes.

Which is in STARK contrast to what’s seen in both Simpsons episodes, in which babies are fully cognitively developed, capable of conversational thoughts but imprisoned in non-vocal bodies that prevent their expression. That’s fine for fiction, but dishonest and monstrous in real life, where the idea is applied not so much to babies, but to the severely autistic.

“Facilitated communication” is a technique in which a person dubbed the facilitator “guides” the hand of an autistic or otherwise mentally affected person to “help” them write, or usually these days, type, messages they would otherwise be unable to express. There really is something that’s been called “locked-in syndrome,” a truly horrible state in which nearly all a person’s voluntary muscles are paralyzed, leaving eye movements as their sole means of communication.

Severe autism is not that. Autism isn’t just a motor control and emotional disorder; as far as we can tell, it also comes with dramatic mental impairments. The worst of the afflicted can’t use eye movements for communication, so it makes little sense they’d be able to guide someone else to painstakingly type their thoughts out. In fact, this demonstrably does not happen, as there have been instances of the “communication” containing information the subject couldn’t possibly have known, and even times when the “facilitator” types when the subject clearly isn’t even paying attention.

Despite being easily falsified, facilitated communication persists due to one word:  hope. Parents desperately hope to communicate with their disabled child, to know there’s someone “in” there, and that understandably leads to a lack of critical thinking on the issue. It’s easiest to fool ourselves when we’re the most emotionally invested.

Facilitated communication practitioners might be fooling themselves too, with the ideomotor effect (when we make movements without realizing it, the same phenomenon that allows a Ouija board to work). More disturbingly, some might be deliberately misleading people for financial gain. One thing’s for sure, and it’s that plenty of people have clearly been hurt by the nonsense practice, as children have been stripped from their parents after facilitated messages “revealed” accusations of sexual abuse.

The worst part of it all (yes, it gets worse) is that some major universities promote facilitated communication. Doctors and activists like Janyce Boynton thankfully halted the University of Northern Iowa from holding conferences promoting the practice, but the big gun of the circuit, Syracuse University, has refused to budge. Facilitated communication is entrenched there, with the Institute of Communication and Inclusion changing its name from the Facilitated Communication Institute expressly to, as stated by donor the Hussman Foundation, “fly under the radar and maintain credibility.”

The work to stop the ineffective and predatory practice of facilitated communication continues, and will as long as there are parents out there whose hope can be taken advantage of. If the 28-year gap between Simpsons baby talk episodes is any indication, it won’t stop anytime soon.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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