Autism, scientifically known as Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), encompasses a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
These challenges are because people with ASDs process information in their brain differently than people who are not affected by the disorder.
Though the disorder is more prevalent in boys, it really knows no boundaries. It seems that ASDs can occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. As prevalent as this disorder is, doctors and scientists are still not sure what causes it.
This lack of knowledge has led to a lot of pseudoscience surrounding the disorder, much of which can be dangerous.
Much of this pseudoscience in autism treatment is based on misconceptions, misunderstanding of the science, and downright deception. Unfortunately, the main victims of pseudoscience are the parents and children who are seeking a treatment or even a cure for Autism.
Misunderstandings Lead to Pseudoscience in Autism Treatment
Many of the misconceptions are due to the fact that the causes of ASDs are relatively unknown. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) contend that although exact causes are unknown, both genetics and environment are commonly believed to play important roles in causing Autism.
It is very difficult to treat or cure an ailment if the cause is unknown.
A common misconception about Autism was that various parental practices were the cause. This theory has been disproved for quite some time; however, the misconception does resurface from time to time.
A misunderstanding of the current science is another common cause of pseudoscientific treatments for Autism.
A 2009 article by Blue Cross Blue Shield describes one example of this scenario. The article states that during preliminary research, Dr. Carlos Pardo and his colleagues at John Hopkins autopsied the brains of people with autism who died in accidents.
During the autopsy, the researchers found evidence of neuroinflammation. When this evidence was published in 2005, many doctors jumped on the study as medical fact. These doctors began to prescribe all manner of untested and unconfirmed drugs and treatments.
When questioned about the unorthodox treatments, many doctors are still quick to cite the 2005 study. However, what these "alternative" practitioners fail to mention is that Dr. Pardo and his colleague explicitly state that they were unsure if the inflammation was good or bad, or even remotely related to Autism.
In the article, Dr. Pardo states:
"We were concerned that the study would raise a lot of controversy and be misused. We were right."
Scams and Deception
Sometimes the pseudoscience surrounding Autism can lead to practitioners simply deceiving patients. The lack of knowledge makes it easy for deceptive practitioners to prey on families who are only seeking the best for their children.
Instead of using hard science, they try to “wow” patients with false claims and big promises. The Association for Science in Autism Treatment states:
"...pseudoscience tries to lend credibility to beliefs, speculations, and untested assumptions by making them appear scientific — for example, by using scientific jargon, endorsements from individuals with 'scientific' credentials, perhaps even some numbers or graphs. But instead of objective measurements from well-controlled experiments, pseudoscientists offer testimonials, anecdotes, and unverified personal reports to back up their claims."
All the while, patients are missing out on treatments that could actually benefit them.
With all of the pseudoscience surrounding Autism, how can parents protect themselves?
According to Association for Science in Autism Treatment, ask, ask, ask, and ask some more. Then when all of your questions are answered, go home and research every answer to determine if the treatment will be beneficial.
The association even offers several questions to ask when looking for a treatment. They are:
1. What is the intervention, precisely?
2. Exactly what is it supposed to do?
3. Have its effects been tested in controlled experiments using direct, objective measures?
4. If so, were those studies published in peer- reviewed scientific journals?
5. What did studies show about positive effects and negative side effects?
6. Did the effects carry over beyond the immediate treatment setting?
7. Is there another scientifically validated treatment that is similarly effective but has fewer negative side effects?
8. Who will administer this treatment, and how can I be sure they are qualified to do so?
9. How will its effects on this individual be evaluated, and by whom?
10. What will happen if we do nothing?
However, most of mainstream science would recommend that patients stay away from these alternative treatments entirely, since most of them are untested and unproven.
Valid and Proven Recommendations
Both the CDC and the NINDS recommends an early intervention program. The CDC states:
"Research shows that early intervention treatment services can greatly improve a child’s development. Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years old (36 months) learn important skills. Services include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others."
Other recommendations made by NINDS are Educational/behavioral interventions, and medications. The institute states:
"Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis."
At the same time, medications allow for the treatment of "specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder."
Even if “scamming” the patient is not the goal, pseudoscience in autism treatment can have dangerous and long-lasting negative effects on Autism patients.
Before starting any treatment plan, consult with a doctor, get a second opinion, research the options, and weigh the benefits against the side effects.
Never be pressured into a treatment you are uncomfortable with and look past the hype on "miracle cures." An informed decision based on sound science is always the best practice.