The battle over a controversial method for autism communication

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For Autism Awareness Month in April, Apple produced a video in which a young teen with autism uses an iPad that dictates what he types. Touching on-screen buttons, he expresses complex thoughts by assembling sentences from icons that represent words.

Speech-assistive technology like this, which used to be prohibitively expensive, is invaluable for the many children and adults with autism who have trouble learning words and grammar, don’t understand social rules during conversations, or struggle to spontaneously use spoken language. But the video has come under some scrutiny—not because of the new technology, but because of the human help he had using it.

In one brief sequence, the boy is shown typing into a device held by a woman, his“communication partner,” who gently pushes the keyboard back against his finger as he types. This pressure, which allegedly helps him to organize his sensory system and motor planning, is a hallmark of Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), what some experts argue is a form of “facilitated communication”—a technique that persists in spite of overwhelming evidence that discredits it.

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August 10, 2016

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