Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan was found guilty of killing her eight-year-old autistic son in November 2014. Jordan admitted killing her son, Jude Mirra, with a lethal dose of medications in a hotel room in February 2010.
However she claimed it was a mercy killing—not because her son had a poor quality of life due to autism—but because she feared that her ex-husband would get custody of the boy, and then torture and sexually abuse him, as she believed had happened for years. Since her son was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan relied on a technique called Facilitated Communication (FC), in which another person holds the disabled person’s hand as he or she types out messages on a keyboard.
According to the New York Times, “She said her son first described the abuse with a few partial words and gestures, but then, in a breakthrough three months later, learned to type on a laptop and gave a detailed account, naming several other people as well.” A CNN story noted that Jordan communicated with her son through a Blackberry device; witnesses described that “Jordan held the device in one hand while supporting and possibly guiding her son’s arm with the other as Jude looked away.”
In this way Jordan came to believe that her son was revealing that he’d been physically and sexually abused by many people, including an ex-husband and a woman who transported him to school. Yet the mystery deepened because police found no evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of letting him suffer further. It’s a bizarre, tragic case, but there’s another explanation for the accusations, one that does not involve an autistic child lying about sexual abuse.
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 (this idea is not supported by the evidence or shared by autism experts).
What is needed, FC advocates claimed, are trained facilitators to help the autistic children by holding their hands, fingers, or elbows while the child typed on a keyboard or pointed to lists of letters, words, or symbols. This technique was developed in the 1970s in Australia and introduced in the United States by Douglas Biklen, a special education director at Syracuse University.
In the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott Lilienfed, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein, and John Ruscio summarize the rise and fall of 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. Regrettably, FC has raised false hopes among thousands of desperate parents of autistic individuals [and] led to dozens of uncorroborated accusations of sexual abuse against these parents—based entirely on typed communications that emerged with the aid of facilitators.”
In other words, the abuse accusations came not from Jude Mirra but instead (presumably unconsciously) from his mother Gigi Jordan, who believed the stories, reported them to police, and eventually used them as a reason to end her son’s life. This is not the first time that the discredited technique has ruined people’s lives, and it may not be the last. Despite the fact that Facilitated Communication has been widely debunked for many years the technique still has many supporters, and it received national attention in 2004 when a short film promoting it was nominated for an Academy Award.
Information casting doubt on the validity of Facilitated Communication came too late for both Jude Mirra and his mother, who was found guilty of manslaughter and faces five to twenty-five years in prison.