Professors should be responsible for using contemporary, reliable learning materials

Josephine MacLean

“Every year when I show ‘Prisoners of Silence,’ I get an emotional response from some students,” integrative biology professor James Bull told me after showing a 1993 documentary on facilitated communication — a debunked field of autism research, as an example of the scientific method.

While it’s true that the documentary “Prisoners of Silence” shows an experiment that helped debunk facilitated communication, the documentary addresses other aspects of autism in an outdated and harmful way that makes it a questionable choice to show to undergraduates with no prior knowledge of the autism spectrum.

The documentary ends by drawing the conclusion that, without facilitated communication, people with autism are mostly incapable of communicating or understanding the world around them. This kind of narrative is considered by the autism community today as outdated as phrenology is by sociologists.

When I asked if the video may have negatively affected students’ perceptions of people with autism, Bull defended his curriculum choice. “I’m sure it did, but I also don’t want autism to become the focus … I want to use whole diversity of situations to say, ‘Here’s where you can apply the same type of evidence-based reasoning to analyze evidence,’” Bull said.

But the context, or lack thereof, in which the documentary was shown makes it impossible to separate the subject from the content. Only about 1.5 percent of children in the United States are on the autism spectrum, and few people without direct experience understand much about the disorder.

Bull was curious about the impact the video had on students in my class, so following our interview we decided to conduct a survey of both sessions of his class post-viewing.

While many of the students seemed to understand that the purpose of the video was to show how facilitated communication was debunked, it’s clear from student responses that the inaccurate facts in the video also
affected them.

Fifty-nine percent of students in the class said that the video taught them something about autism unrelated to facilitated communication.

One of the most inaccurate but striking facts the video shared was that 80 percent of people with autism were mentally retarded. I asked our class what they thought the estimate was today, and 38 percent answered that they thought about 50 percent or more of people with autism had an intellectual disability.

Modern estimates put that number around 38 percent, at the most.

Miranda Georgeson is a mechanical engineering sophomore who has autism. “Our inner worlds are just as rich and complex and human as yours. That’s the harm of leaving the video as is, without contextualizing it,” she said.

“To think that a professor at UT would pass that insensitivity on to a roomful of
undergraduates, that hurts our movement,” said Ann Hart, board member and parent-support volunteer with the Autism Society of Texas. “I have no doubt that it’s innocent on his part, but I would say there has to be a
better example.”

It would be easy for Bull to find evidence and research to provide better context. “There is very current, high-end research (on autism) happening at UT, it’s not hard to find. The neuroscience department had a free lecture a few weeks ago,” Hart said.

When a professor shows blatantly wrong material to students, the only ethical action is to provide plenty of context and correction to go along with the example.

UT is a world-class university for a reason. When asked, 67 percent of the class said they wanted the professor to give context when showing outdated materials to the class.

Since surveying the class, Bull said he plans to write an introduction for the video for use in future classes. UT professors at large should follow his example and review their own curricula. 

MacLean is an advertising and geography junior from Austin.