The Path to Independence: Step 2 – Presumption of Competence

It is especially important that difficulties with communication not be taken as evidence of intellectual competence, as is often the case. It is easy for school administrators and teachers to make a blanket assumption that non-verbal autistics are mentally disabled as well as physically. The fight to overcome those assumptions is one of the most frustrating aspects of the intelligent but non-verbal autistic.

I experienced resentment and regret and anger toward the teachers I had in earlier years who didn’t discover that I was intelligently present, waiting for a lifeline of communication.
John Smyth, Independent Typer

Although a person may be unable to demonstrate what she or he thinks and feels, or may have great difficulty being understood, she or he should not be further handicapped by the attitudes of others.

Determining Competence of Autistic Children – Damned if They Are, Damned if They’re Not

When it comes to the presumption of competence, autistic children are doubly stigmatized. On the one hand, they are often dismissed as “low functioning” or mentally retarded, especially if they have poor speaking skills as many do. Yet when autistics do show exceptional abilities, such as uncanny visual discrimination and memory for detail, their flashes of brilliance are marginalized as aberrations, mere symptoms of their higher order cognitive deficit. They often earn a dubious promotion to “idiot savant.”

“If you want to see competence, it helps if you look for it.”
Douglas Biklen, FC Typer


Candidacy for FC

The assessment process for FC involves looking to see whether a person has physical/movement problems which affect their ability to point independently or reliably and whether physical support can help a person overcome those problems.

One of the key areas of the assessment process is to determine if the FC candidate has the basic control of movement to able to work with an FC trainer.

In FCT, a partner (facilitator) helps the communication aid user overcome physical problems and develop effective pointing skills. As the student’s skills and confidence increase the amount of facilitation is reduced. The ultimate goal is for students to be able to use the communication aid(s) of their choice independently.

However, while basic movement control will improve over time as FC training progresses, for many typers the issue will never disappear completely. Even one of best known independent typers and FC advocates, Tracy Thresher, who was featured in the documentary about Facilitated Communication Wretches & Jabberers, still needs support at times:

“My impulse control problems, my way of going too hard at the letters and my problems with perseveration, are things I need help from my facilitators. The facilitator must slow me down and pull my arm back to help me start again so that I can point to the correct letter I am going for. I would not be able to type the words I really want without the firm resistance of the facilitator.” Tracy Thresher, FC Independent Typer

For more information about movement control and differences, see Step 1 – Facilitator Training: Movement Differences: What Are They and What Do FC Trainers Need to Know About Them?

Schools Need to Use the Right Tools to Ensure an Accurate Assessment

A good example of waste and inaccuracy when attempting to evaluate competence is when schools use tests that measure language capability between tester and student based on language skills rather than real advanced intelligence. For example:

  • The widely used Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) measures intelligence, but requires language skill.
  • Conversely, the Ravens Progressive Matrices, considered the preeminent test of what’s called “fluid intelligence,” measure real fluid intelligence, including good memory, focused attention and other executive skills. But it doesn’t require much language skill to take.

    Basically, the test presents arrays of complicated patterns with one missing, and test takers are required to choose the one that would logically complete the series. The test demands a good memory, focused attention and other “executive skills,” but, unlike the WISC, it doesn’t require much language.

The bottom line is that when they use the Ravens Progressive Matrices, schools don’t need a higher ability to communicate with students at higher levels for the student to score well on this test which measures true intelligence and not communication.

Strategies for Presuming Competence


    • Examine your attitude—practice saying, “How can this work?”, “How can this child be successful?”
    • Question your stereotypes—how someone looks, walks, or talks does not tell you about how they think and feel.
    • Use age appropriate talk—examine your tone of voice and topic.
    • Support communication.
    • Listen openly—work to shed judgments.
    • Teach peers and others how to interpret potentially confusing behavior.
    • Do not speak in front of someone as if they were not there.


  • In conversation, refer to the person in a way that includes them in the conversation.
  • Ask permission to share information with others.
  • Be humble.
  • If possible, always let the person explain for himself or herself and do not speak for them.
  • Assume that every student will benefit from learning age appropriate academic curriculum.
  • Look for evidence of understanding.
  • Support students to show understanding using their strengths.
  • Design adaptations


The Right to Communicate

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), “The Congress finds that physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination; others who have a record of a disability or are regarded as having a disability also have been subjected to discrimination.”

Every person, regardless of the severity of his/her disabilities has the right and the ability to communicate with others, express everyday preferences, and exercise at least some control over his or her daily life. Each individual, therefore, should be given the chance, training, technology, respect and encouragement to do so.
Rosemary Crossley, Empowering Communication Aid Users, 1999

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