By Raising Children Network
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young boy with his head in his hand
 
Fad therapies for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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?

Claims about interventions for autism spectrum disorder

When interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are promoted, they come with claims of all kinds. Evidence offered to support these claims generally falls into three categories – science, pseudoscience and anti-science.

Science
Science provides the best test we have of how well interventions work. Scientific claims offer objective evidence, without asking you to have faith or to accept testimonials as proof.

Psuedoscience
Pseudoscientific claims use scientific-sounding words or present theories that sound plausible. But there’s no real evidence that a scientific approach has been used. Instead, supporters of these therapies might offer published case examples or parent and expert testimonials as evidence.

Anti-science
Claims based on anti-science generally rely on belief or faith. You’re simply asked to believe that the intervention works. Sometimes, the people promoting the therapy might even say that it can’t be tested because testing will interfere with it. These interventions are often promoted with convincing stories from other parents.

Scientifically based interventions are based on theories about why something happens. Those theories are then carefully tested. You can read more about how interventions are tested and how to choose interventions.

Identifying fad therapies for autism spectrum disorder

Fad interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be based on anti-science or pseudoscience. They become popular quickly and spread fast, often disappearing later. They sound plausible and can have a ‘feel-good’ factor that appeals to parents.

To work out whether an intervention is a fad based on anti-science or pseudoscience, consider whether it:

  • is promoted by paid advertisements in magazines, parenting publications or websites, or on TV
  • is promoted as used by a celebrity
  • uses scientific language but presents no clear evidence
  • claims to be popular with medical ‘experts’
  • claims total ‘cures’ in a short time, or claims to cure many disorders with the same treatment – for example, dyslexia and ADHD as well as ASD
  • 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.

If you come across a therapy for ASD 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.

Where do fad therapies for autism spectrum disorder come from?

Fads are based on ideas that sound good, rather than on scientifically tested evidence. The ideas can come from anywhere. For example, they could come from unrelated fields of medicine, animal observation and studies, or spiritual beliefs. Fads can get circulated in various ways, including the internet.

In the absence of a ‘cure’, parents seek and find many different ideas about treatment. Also, parents gather information in lots of different ways, especially online. So there are countless opportunities for plausible-sounding ‘experts’ to promote ‘miraculous’ new interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Why are fad therapies popular?

Often a fad therapy for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 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.

A pseudoscientific intervention can seem credible and attractive when:

  • it fits in with your own philosophy about raising children
  • it focuses on treating a known difficulty in ASD like sensory problems
  • a self-styled ‘expert’ says it works
  • several parents with children like yours say it works and has changed their lives.

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.

Fad therapies 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 therapies for autism spectrum disorder (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.
  • paying new attention to their child, so they notice new things that he does, and think that the changes are because of the therapy. 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’re using a fad therapy based on the placebo effect, you’re less likely to look for an evidence-based treatment.

 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-05-2017
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Associate Professor Amanda Richdale, principal research fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Melbourne.