262. Facilitated Communication

The phrase “facilitated communication,” as I’ve heard it used, refers to a very specific technique for helping some people who have trouble letting other people know what they’re thinking and feeling. A friend of mine has been deeply involved in using this technique, and another friend of mine is an adult with autism who has been able to communicate because of it. There is controversy about whether the technique really works, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it works for some people.
But that’s not what this article is about. Communication can be difficult for all kinds of people; autism is one of many obstacles to expressing thoughts and feelings, being heard and understood, and hearing and understanding what others express. And I recently witnessed a gathering of adults to discuss an issue that can be quite explosive. The mood in the room, at first, did not make it seem as if communication was going to be possible, let alone facile. The person moderating the discussion had obviously thoroughly thought through his approach to the issue.
He is the principal of an elementary school in which I volunteer, and he needed to make a decision about whether or not to display a group of photographs in the school, and if so, how and where to display them. To me, the photographs were innocuous. They depicted families living their lives. These families were not doing anything children shouldn’t see, but they didn’t look like the families some of the children and their parents were used to. Parents were divided about whether children ought to see these pictures in a public school.
At first, it began to look as if the meeting was going to turn into a verbal battle, as talk shows sometimes do when people discuss controversial issues. But the way it was handled, that didn’t happen. People expressed strong
opinions and emotions. Sometimes tears flowed, and I saw anger on some faces. But more to the point, I think communication was happening.
At least part of the reason some people were communicating was that the principal kept to some ground rules: don’t applaud or hiss when someone makes a point; everyone who wants to speak will get a chance; and the ultimate decision was not going to be made during that meeting or immediately afterwards. I’m sure that battles were going on in some people’s minds, but this masterful facilitator managed to structure a situation in which at least some people who disagreed with each other heard each other. I, for one, was impressed.
Some people left the meeting quite discouraged. I spoke with some of them, and they were so upset about some of the things people had said that they wondered whether there had been any communication at all. I understand their frustration, but I don’t share it; I left the meeting with the impression that maybe some minds had been changed, or at least opened, and that even some people who would disagree with the final decision would feel as if their voices had been heard.

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