The Case of Genie, today for SLPs

Recently a lifelong friend of mine who is now teaching an AP Psychology Course in a Public School in New England asked me about “Genie” (the child born in an extremely abusive environment with severe consequences to her communication) from the perspective of my field.  As with many lifelong friends, we are familiar with what each of us do, but don’t necessarily spend all of our time explaining the nuances of our fields to each other since when we do talk or get together we are looking to get away from work.  He asked me the question about what would happen if Genie were discovered today.  He also asked about where people in speech-language pathology came from in terms of undergraduate background.  I’ve posted my reply to him here (for the most part un-edited).  I ask that you take it in the context of a reply to my friend and not a piece of scholarly work.  I do hope that if you choose to comment you will feel free to contribute scholarship to the discussion though.

Hi Chris
On Genie…
It is an extremely interesting idea to have as a point of discussion what would happen to Genie today were she discovered. I actually find the exercise much more intriguing than my current work queue (I should probably have left that part out). I’d encourage you to have this be a point of discussion and would definitely put it forth myself to push students in my course in Language Development (after giving you credit for the idea). It seems likely that if I post this publicly that several of my colleagues may have already gone down this road. If so, I’ll certainly share the results.

There are generally two contexts for discussing Genie in my field. The first is with the idea of a “critical period” for language development. Genie is cited as an example of someone who because she didn’t have the chance to develop language during childhood was not able to master syntax later in life despite some successful intervention after she was removed from her incredibly abusive environment. The idea is that there is a critical time for learning language which would speak to a “nature” related argument in development. Genie’s case came at a time in language development theory when there was substantial pushback against the idea that principles of behaviorism could account for pretty much anything- including language. Chomsky’s articulation of a more innate framework was gaining some real traction. Linguistics in addition to psychology really started to get some control over the conversation. Now courses in psycholinguistics are regular offerings.

The second major point of discussion has to do with ethical behavior by professionals. In Genie’s case she was extensively studied but was passed around between multiple foster and family sites in guardianship and the researchers working with her passed in and out of her life. Ultimately she was not supported by the researchers and her skills didn’t develop. Although there may have been genuine caring on the part of researchers, the bottom line was that there was not stability in her services to put it in the best possible light.

I believe a speech-language pathologist would be involved in Genie’s case were she to be found today and the extent to which researchers would have access to her would be extremely limited. In addition to research ethics, the extent of involvement with Genie’s case would actually involve Special Education legislation. The question of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) would need to be answered more than the queries around her theoretical contributions. The issues would relate, I hope, to an Institutional Review Board being extremely cautious in allowing researchers to work with such a “vulnerable” person. Her ability to give informed consent to participate in research would be seriously questioned and given the past history in cases like these, whomever was assigned to make decisions about consent on her behalf would be extremely conservative.

That would mean Genie would be engaged in a number of social services. Remember that given her age on discovery she most likely would be engaged with a school system on some level. It would be interesting to see the level of “least restrictive environment” identified for her. Since her communication skills were severely impaired, speech-language would be one of the services she would undoubtedly qualify for in the IEP process.

When she was discovered in the 1970s Special Education Legislation was really in its infancy in the USA, but now in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which services are delivered, it would be the school system for anyone up to age 21.

50% of SLPs work in the school system. Any child whose access to education is limited due to communication qualifies for speech-language services. It is actually interesting to track some changes in how this is interpreted. This leads to a tangential discussion, however. There would be little doubt that Genie’s communication would constitute a significant impairment. The SLP would need to work closely with a Social Worker and Psychologist in her service delivery. Most likely augmentative and alternative communication would be pursued to give her ready access to communication while her speech and language skills were developed in therapy.

This is still a rather cold projection. The psycho-social aspects of her case would necessitate a significant commitment to careful consideration of socialization. The long term status of Genie in a secure environment would be critical to consider. Obviously Genie’s ability to engage in trusting relationships would be compromised. Her speech-language development could not be conducted in isolation in some research room somewhere. Communication is contextual and her skills would need to be developed in a functional way in the context of meaningful social exchanges. The language debate of the 70s and since has left out the importance of context that in the case of speech-language pathologist is at the heart of language development theory. In the ideal case, ways to integrate Genie would be seen as paramount and the idea that cases like Genie are a problem for our whole society rather than a system within it would be confronted (social commentary mine).

You can find a recent example of high profile involvement of an SLP outside of the school setting with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Again speaking to the idea that a speech-language pathologist figures into the idea of communication related recovery.

In answer to you other question related to the background of speech-language pathologists… Although the are some that come from psychology as an undergraduate major, there is a major in communication sciences and disorders accounting for many. In other cases, some might even come from music- yours truly.

I appreciate the chance to explore this in the context of some education related to my field and hope that your students will seek out some additional avenues of inquiry. At the very least they can follow me on Twitter… @sayitanywayou

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