Comas And Communications


When Belgian Rom Houden was left in a coma following a car accident in 1983, his family feared he’d never come back from it. Little did they know, throughout his 23 years existing in what was thought to be a vegetative state, Rom was actually fully conscious and suffering from a condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’ – where the sufferer is completely paralysed but otherwise mentally sound. In a report which has garnered international interest, Rom has been shown having learnt to communicate by typing on a keyboard with one finger, while his hand is held and supported and moved around by his helper.

Or so the report tells us.

Upon closer inspection, it seems the miraculous breakthrough might not be so amazing at all – a fact which James Randi picked up for the JREF site in a post he titled ‘This Cruel Farce Has To Stop‘. Having studied the video evidence, Randi is convinced Rom’s communications mount to little more than standard ‘facilitated communications‘ – in essence, that his helper is in fact the one doing the typing, and poor Rom is merely a helpless puppet. Writing on the JREF blog, Randi said:

I cannot understand how anyone, professional medical person or layman, can continue to believe that the farce known as “Facilitated Communication” [FC] represents anything other than a fantasy that was begun back in 1977, when an Australian woman named Rosemary Crossley came up with the idea that autistic persons could express their thoughts via a keyboard when their hand was “supported” by what she called a “facilitator.”

For readers who aren’t aware of FC, it effectively is another example of the same ideomotor movement that fools people into believing in dowsing rods and ouija boards. The facilitator, so tuned in to the idea of getting messages from the sufferer, is victim of their own subconscious – spelling out messages based not on movements from their subject but on their own expectation. Watching videos of Rom and his helper, it’s hard not to see Randi’s point – indeed each video looks very clearly like it’s the helper who’s actually guiding Rom’s hand, and in one video (as Randi rightly pointed out) Rom’s eyes are even closed. Impressive, then, for an almost-completely paralysed man to accurately hit buttons on a keyboard of his own accord with his eyes shut – that’s something I can barely do with open eyes and full physical movement. That’s before you take into account the apparent poetic nature of the messages conveyed, which is again impressive for a man who has spent 23 years in complete intellectual isolation – a state known to be incredibly dangerous to psychological welfare.

I can fully understand the need for Rom’s mother and friends to re-connect with the man they lost 23 years ago, and can see why they might jump at any hope that he can still get through to them. However, it’s important to be rational, and to be clear as to the source of the communications – if it’s Rom, that’s great; if it’s not, then they must have the courage and the strength to accept that. There’s a number of very simple, very quick test to find out for sure – for example:

  1. Take the facilitator aside
  2. Show Rom a card with a word or picture on it
  3. Show the facilitator a card with a different word or picture on it, but don’t let her know it’s a different word or picture – she must think they’re seeing the same one
  4. Have ‘Rom’ type the word or name of the object in the picture he saw
  5. If Rom’s word comes through, he truly is typing and FC works. If the facilitator’s word is typed in, then clearly it’s the intent (even subconsciously) of the facilitator that’s causing the messages to appear

Doubtlessly people will be wondering – what’s the harm here? If the mother thinks she has her son back, and Rom’s getting attention in his life, surely that’s a win-win situation? For me, the harm is clear – this poor man spent 23 years completely unable to communicate, despite being mentally in tact. That would be almost utterly unbearable. The only thing that could top it would be being unable to communicate what I wanted to, yet having someone put words into my mouth that weren’t mine. It’s one thing to be trapped in a silent shell; it’s another thing to be silently trapped as a puppet in your own body, and have your loved ones not even realise anything was wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a worse kind of Hell.

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  1. #1 by Gittins on November 25, 2009 - 11:31

    Maybe they can attach strings to his hands and feet so his facilitator can enter him in next year’s Strictly Come Dancing like some macabre marionette. His glazed expression and head uncontrollably lolling about might cost him a few points in the foxtrot though.

  2. #2 by Gavin on November 26, 2009 - 00:47

    It’s incredible that none of the medical personnel or family members have tested these claims.

  3. #3 by AexMagd on November 26, 2009 - 08:40

    I know! Especially considering that it could have massive ramifications for turning off life support etc. The BBC has repeated it verbatim without question, as usual.

  4. #4 by Jo Fairburn on December 4, 2009 - 15:58

    I fully agree, Marsh, that poor man is now being shown off like some sort of performing seal while all the time, he may be screaming inside for his ‘helper’ to *&^*% off and stop duping his family and loved ones. How very sad. As if he hasn’t suffered enough.

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