Biases and how to avoid building the next stereotype

A history of bias building
Donald Gray Triplett, the first person to be diagnosed as Autistic by Leo Kanner turned 77 in 2010. This was as recorded in the Oct 2010 issue of The Atlantic, ‘Autism’s First Child’. He is 87 this year. Leo Kanner came up with the classification, and diagnosis of Autism based on 11 case studies. Donald Triplett was referred to as Case 1, Donald T. The history of Autism – 1943 – 2020 is a very short one. Hans Asperger and his contemporaneous diagnosis of Asperger’s has now been folded into the same diagnostic criteria as Autism, with the concurrence of Aspergerian self-advocates in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 updated in 2013.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, RPMImage: Donald Triplett, surpassing all expectations in Kanner’s diagnosis.

In the 1950 and 1960’s we saw a shift away from Asperger and Kanner’s analysis of Autism as an innate sense of profound aloneness to a psychoanalytic framework. Improper and faulty nurturing by mothers of their children, in early childhood caused these children to withdraw into an ‘empty fortress’. The first wave of treatment and understanding autism in the form of Bruno Bettelheim, ‘refrigerator mom’ stereotype led to therapy where mothers were asked to hold and hug their sensorily defensive children, under the guidance of a psychoanalyst. It wasn’t the first time that nonspeaking individuals would be placed in a metaphoric fortress and it wasn’t the last.

Dr. Rimland in the 70’s proposed that Autism is not a psychiatric condition but a neurodevelopmental one that one could improve and be recovered from. Dr. Lovaas’ 1987 study viewed Autism in behavioristic terms. Ann Mc Guire, in War on Autism summarizes his approach as follows – Lovaas viewed the autistic’s outward manifestations of behavior and found them inappropriate, and through behavioral intervention correctable and therefore improvable. Catherine Maurice’s book Let Me Hear Your Voice popularized his work of behavior modification and recovering the autistic child. This mode of understanding the autistic person continues to hold sway in academia, government and through advocacy of speaking parents and speaking professionals over mainstream society.

Seeds of change
Since the 2010’s a sea of change is upon us. Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary[1]make the case for rethinking Autism as a movement sensory difference requiring understanding and support. Note that they don’t use the word disorder in line with changing mores that do not view disabled people as pathological or having a disorder needing order. Both of these – are historical markers. They noted how the same sensory movements exhibited by Tourette syndrome, Parkinson’s disorder are explained in neurological terms and in the case of autism in social terms. In Autism, these sensory movements are described as volitional and as behaviors of non-compliance, avoidance, escape – in need of modification. Along with Cheryl Jorgensen and her work on operating under the Least Dangerous Assumption[2] and the notion of Presume Competence put forth by Biklen and Burke[3], the work of the movement for communication through spelling and typing – Rapid Prompting Method, Facilitated Communication and Spelling to Communicate makes a big and bold sweeping ask. Let’s sunset the notion of autism as an intellectual disability – and examine it as a neurological disability of motor-sensory and regulation differences.

This is a big and bold endeavor that brings autistic people, especially those who are nonspeaking, who have for 8 decades been in a fortress, a voice and a chance to speak for themselves. We are at a major inflexion point in the trajectory of nonspeaking people. If we do not want to build another fortress, it means that parents and practitioners who are communication partners of nonspeaking people have to live up to a very high standard of personal practice, so as not to repeat the history of the past 8 decades.

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, RPM

Understand your bias
This is of course easier said than done. Daniel Kahneman a Nobel laureate for economics and psychologist by training in the area of human perception and judgement put forth why this is so. In his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’, he exposes how inherently incapable we are, because of our neurology, to think without bias. He explains this by using two constructs – two forms of systemic thinking. We have a conscious mind and an unconscious mind, and our unconscious mind is geared towards ensuring survival. He speaks of our minds as having two systems – System 1 and System 2.

He categorizes them as follows –

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, RPM

Human beings are hardwired to explain what they see through their system 1 thinking. It is system 2 that examines reality, is skeptical and looks for alternative explanations for what is actually happening. Kahneman went on to expose biases and fallacies in the ways that we think that our system 2 is not even aware of, let alone engaged in. Confirmation Bias is easily the most pernicious one in our world of spelling to communicate. If we believe something about our spellers, our system 1 automatically notes only the events that confirm our belief and ignores incidences and events that challenge or negate that belief. Whatever your operating belief about a speller is – your system 1 bias will lead you to confirm it by selecting only those occurrences that confirm your bias. Since system 1 operates at the unconscious level, it is, according to Kahneman, very difficult to inhibit or even train to rid itself of cognitive biases. Your analytical, skeptical system 2 will not even be aware that you are ignoring evidence that contradicts your bias.

There are many more kinds of biases. Another formidable bias that practitioners and parents should note is the priming bias. When we start off on an activity – an image, or anything in our environment can trigger system 1. For example if shown the image of a kitchen sink, we are likely to fill in the blanks of a word like D _ _H with DISH, if we were shown an image of a jogger we are likely to fill in D_ _ H as DASH. Individuals if asked to watch a video and say told to look out for animals, will see the chimp walking past holding bananas, but miss the man with the green balloons. Availability biases allow us to use our immediate experience and rapid recall, to make quick decisions and judgements that are not borne out by facts or statistics. For example, if we were stuck in traffic twice while taking a particular route, this bias will lead us to avoid taking it the third time, without checking for actual traffic updates. Anchoring bias is caused when exposure to numbers influences decisions. In a Kahneman designed experiment, judges who were about to sentence criminals were found to mete out higher sentences to criminals if in a dice throwing activity prior to sentencing, they rolled out a higher number. Here are more fallacies and biases to explore via a you tube video.

Moving forward
What do we do in the face of system 1 and the formidable list of biases we are prewired for? We can’t, according to Kahneman, change our interior wiring, designed evolutionarily to keep us safe, but we can, according to him, do it from the outside. We can build slow thinking into our organizational systems [4]. We need to be thoughtful in our work, constantly checking for biases. We can use frameworks for ethics and standards of best practice, safeguard against possible influence to ensure that it is the nonspeakers’ voices that we hear. We need to check for our biases as we go about scribing for nonspeakers. We should hold each other accountable for ethical and best practices. We can mitigate biases from creeping in.

Let’s not, as speaking people, be the ones to create the next fortress for nonspeakers, let us instead, think slow!

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, nonspeaking, nonspeakers, Autism, I-ASC, Speller, nonverbal, RPM

Author note:

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeakersLakshmi Rao Sankar is a member of the I-ASC leadership Team, and S2C practitioner. She is a leader in nonprofit stewardship, and organization development and a partner in a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations.


[1] Rethinking Autism:Implications of sensory and movement difference for understanding and support. Donnellan Ann, Hill David, Leary Marth, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, January 2013

[2] The Least Dangerous Solution, Jorgenson Cheryl, Disability Solutions, Vo 6, Issue 3, Fall 2005

[3] Presuming Competence, Biklen Doug, Burke Jamie, Equity and Excellence in Education, 2006

[4] The cognitive biases tricking your brain, Ben Yagoda, The Atlantic, 2018


The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through training, education, advocacy and research.  I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association

Posted By on Wednesday, September 16th, 2020 in Autism,Community,Education,Families,Motor,Nonspeakers,Research,S2C,Spelling to Communicate

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