Claims about therapies and supports for autistic children
Therapies and supports for autistic children are usually promoted with claims about how well they work and how they help children. Evidence for these claims generally falls into three categories – science, pseudoscience and anti-science.
Science is the best way to test how well therapies and supports work. Claims that are backed by scientific evidence don’t need you to have faith that they work or to accept testimonials as proof.
Pseudoscientific claims use scientific-sounding words or present theories that sound convincing. But there’s no real evidence that a scientific approach has been used. Instead, supporters of these therapies and supports might offer published case examples or parent and expert testimonials as evidence.
Claims based on anti-science generally rely on belief or faith. You’re simply asked to believe that the therapy or support works. Sometimes, the people promoting the therapy might even say that it can’t be tested because testing will interfere with it. These claims are often promoted with convincing stories from other parents.
Scientifically based therapies and supports are built on theories about why something happens. Those theories are then carefully tested. You can read more about how therapies and supports are tested and how to choose evidence-based therapies and supports.
Identifying fad therapies and supports
Fad therapies and supports for autistic children can be based on anti-science or pseudoscience. They become popular quickly and spread fast, often disappearing later. They sound convincing and can have a ‘feel-good’ factor that appeals to parents.
To work out whether a therapy or support 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 autism
- uses lots of personal stories or testimonials.
If a therapy or support uses one or more of these strategies, it’s probably based on anti-science or pseudoscience.
There are many therapies and supports for autistic children, and it can be hard to know which are evidence-based and which are fads. If you can’t find any information about the scientific research and testing behind a therapy, it might be a fad.
Where do fad therapies and supports for autistic children 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 get circulated in various ways, especially on the internet. The internet offers many opportunities for ‘experts’ to promote ‘miraculous’ new therapies and supports and even ‘cures’ for autistic children.
Why are fad therapies and supports popular?
Often a fad therapy or support 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 therapy can seem credible and attractive when:
- it fits in with your own philosophy about raising children
- it focuses on treating a known difficulty in autism like sensory problems
- a self-styled ‘expert’ says it works
- several parents with children like yours say it works and has changed their lives.
If your child has been recently diagnosed, it can help to get familiar with the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children. This can help you make informed choices about the best options for your child.
Fad therapies: why they seem to work
Fad therapies and supports might seem to be effective, even though they’re not actually helping with children’s challenges.
This can happen when people:
- do something they believe is positive, so they expect to see change
- pay new attention to their children, so they notice new things and think that these things are happening because of the therapy. Alternatively, the extra attention itself might be causing the change.
Is this a bad thing?
Any change in your child might be welcome. But there might be other therapies and supports that would lead to bigger and better positive outcomes. Also, choosing a therapy or support is always an investment of time and energy. If you’re using a fad therapy that seems to work, you’re less likely to look for an evidence-based approach.