Jan. 7, 2012 — -- Two decades after unfounded sexual abuse allegations and a controversial autism communication tool turned her family's life upside down, Suzette Wheaton is angry to hear that another family has found itself in similar straits.
"It still makes me mad that something like that can happen," Wheaton, now 55, told ABCNews.com. "It has happened to a lot of people and it's just aggravating that something like that can happen to a family and just destroy them."
In the early 1990s, the Wheatons were part of a disturbing trend: families whose autistic children accused them of sexual abuse -- allegations leveled through a technique called facilitated communication.
The technique involves a trained person called a facilitator, who holds a disabled person's arm while they type on a keyboard. But in case after case, charges against accused parents were dropped or dismissed and questions were raised about whether facilitators were, in fact, guiding their young clients to type the unthinkable accusations.
The cases caught the attention of the American Psychological Association. In 1994, the association deemed the technique an "unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy," a position it continues to stand behind today.
In the decade and a half that followed, the controversy seemed to die down. That changed in 2007, when prosecutors in Oakland County, Mich. leveled charges against a husband and wife when allegations emerged through facilitated communication. In this case, an autistic teenage girl named Aislinn typed out accusations similar to many of those earlier cases, that her father, Julian Wendrow, had sexually abused her.
Julian Wendrow was arrested, but prosecutors later dropped the charges against him, arguing that his daughter had become uncooperative. The Wendrows, meanwhile, said that a courtroom hearing testing their daughter's use of FC proved that the technique wasn't working for Aislinn and that girl's facilitator had made up the allegations.
The family, which was profiled on Friday's "20/20," is now suing law enforcement authorities and others involved in the case. Many allegations were dismissed because of immunity laws but others are yet to be adjudicated. The police department involved in the case settled with the family for $1.8 million with no admission of wrongdoing.
'When It's Over, It's Over'
Speech pathologist Howard Shane, of Children's Hospital Boston, an ardent critic of facilitated communication, was involved in the Wheaton's case as well as several other of the 1990s FC sex abuse cases. When he was brought in to testify in the Wendrow case, Shane remembered a prosecutor questioning his expertise, noting that it had been 15 years since he had researched FC.
Shane said he hadn't continued research on facilitated communication for a reason.
"It'd be like suggesting that we continue to study cold fusion or bloodletting," Shane said. "When it's over, it's over."
In the 1992 Wheaton case, Betsy Wheaton, a 16-year-old autistic girl, supposedly used facilitated communication to accuse her father and brother of sexual abuse. Shane consulted in the case and developed a test that ultimately convinced Wheaton's facilitator that she, not Betsy, had concocted the sex abuse allegations.
The test, which Shane has used in other sex abuse cases involving FC, hinged on pictures: Shane would show one picture to Janyce Boynton, the facilitator, and a different picture to Betsy. Then Betsy, with Boynton's help, was asked to type what she had seen.
In every instance, the word typed was not what Betsy had seen but what Boynton had seen.