‘Fad’ therapies for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are those approaches that quickly become popular for a while, then disappear. They sound plausible and promise amazing results, but aren’t usually supported by scientific evidence. But how can you tell the difference between a reliable intervention and a fad?
Finding reliable evidence about ASD interventions
When interventions for ASD are promoted, they come with claims of all kinds. Generally, evidence offered to support these claims falls into three categories – science, pseudoscience and anti-science. Fad interventions are often based on anti-scientific or pseudoscientific claims.
Science provides the best test we have of how well interventions work. Scientific claims offer objective evidence, without asking you to have faith or accept testimonials as proof.
Pseudoscientific claims use scientific-sounding words or present theories that sound plausible. But they actually offer no real evidence that a scientific approach has been used. Instead, published case examples or parent and expert testimonials might be offered as evidence.
A pseudoscientific intervention can seem credible and attractive when:
- It fits in with your own philosophy about child rearing and education.
- It focuses on treating a known difficulty in autism (such as sensory problems).
- A self-styled ‘expert’ says it works.
- Several parents (with children like yours) say it works and has changed their lives.
Claims based on anti-science generally rely on belief or faith. Parents are simply asked to believe that the intervention works. Sometimes, the people promoting it might even say that it can’t be tested because testing will interfere with the intervention. These interventions are often promoted with convincing stories from other parents.
Telling the difference
To work out whether an intervention is based on anti-science or pseudoscience, consider whether it:
- is being promoted by paid advertisement through the media (magazines, TV, parenting publications)
- uses scientific language but presents no clear evidence
- claims to be popular with medical ‘experts’
- uses lots of personal stories or testimonials.
If an intervention uses one or more of these strategies, it’s probably based on anti-science or pseudoscience.
Identifying fad interventions
Fad interventions for ASD rise in popularity and spread fast, often disappearing later. Fads:
- can be based on anti-science or pseudoscience
- attract attention easily and sound plausible (perhaps also having a ‘feel-good’ factor that appeals to parents)
- often make claims about total ‘cures’ in a short time
- are sometimes promoted as used by celebrities
- often claim to cure many disorders with the same treatment – for example, dyslexia and ADHD as well as ASD.
Where do fads come from?
Fads are based on plausible-sounding ideas, rather than scientifically tested evidence. The ideas can come from anywhere. Fads can get circulated in various ways, including the internet.
If you come across a treatment for autism on the internet and you can’t find any information about whether, where and by whom it was tested, beware – it might be a fad.
In its early days, medicine was based on ideas more than on evidence – ideas about how the body works and what causes health problems. Many treatments were supported by well-known practitioners, but many didn’t really work.
In other words, these ideas were fads. Slowly, as science showed that medicines could cure specific diseases, fads for curing these diseases faded. For example, before we knew throat infections could be cured with penicillin, there were many other ideas about how to treat the condition.
A similar thing applies to autism today. In the absence of a ‘cure’, parents seek and find many different ideas about treatment.
Also, modern parents gather information in lots of different ways (including through the media and internet). So there are countless opportunies for plausible-sounding ‘experts’ to promote ‘miraculous’ new interventions for autism.
Why are fads popular?
Often a fad therapy becomes popular because of its pseudoscientific claims. Although the claims aren’t supported by evidence, they might sound plausible or appealing because of how they’re presented.
Parents of children newly diagnosed with ASD can be particularly vulnerable to fads
. Following an ASD diagnosis for their child, parents often feel desperate and under pressure to help their child quickly. Fads can be appealing. They often offer quick fixes when evidence-based interventions can be costly, take a long time and involve a lot of work.
Fads and the placebo effect
A placebo is a pill or drug that doesn’t contain anything that will actually make you better, or affect your health in any way. When people taking these pills say the pills have had some positive results, it’s called the placebo effect.
This happens because people falsely believe the placebo is a real pill and will bring change. Simply doing something, rather than nothing, seems to cause a change (although the effects are usually short term).
Fad treatments for ASD can seem effective. This is because people using them experience the placebo effect. This can happen because:
- People are doing something they believe is positive, so they expect to see change.
- They’re now paying new attention to their child, so they notice new things that he does, and think that the changes are because of the treatment. Alternatively, the extra attention itself might be causing the change.
Is the placebo effect a bad thing?
Any change in your child (resulting from a placebo or something else) might be welcome. But there might be other interventions that would lead to bigger and better positive outcomes. Also, choosing an intervention is always an investment of time and energy – while you pursue a fad based on the placebo effect, you’re less likely to look for another, evidence-based treatment.