Therapies and supports for autistic children: why test the evidence?
All therapies and supports for autistic children make claims about how they’ll help children. For example, a therapy might claim that it’ll improve children’s symptoms, teach skills or even ‘cure’ autism.
Testing the evidence involves checking what therapies and supports claim to do against what happens in reality, when real people use them.
Testing matters. When testing is done properly, it can tell you whether therapies and supports do what they’re supposed to do.
Science: why it’s the best way to test therapies and supports for autistic children
Whether it’s a new skin cream, new computer software or therapy or support for autistic children, most people agree that the best way to test something is to use a scientific approach.
Science tests therapies and supports for autistic children by:
- clearly describing the behaviour that the therapy or support is supposed to change
- clearly explaining how you use the therapy or support
- clearly identifying how a change in behaviour or symptoms will be measured
- controlling other possible causes of change in the behaviour – for example, changing only one thing at a time, having a control group, or testing in a way that can’t be influenced by opinions or beliefs
- repeating the test to see whether the same results are found, preferably by other researchers.
When it’s done well, this means that the test is fair and the test results are reliable.
Certain things don’t count as tests. These include:
- personal testimonies, even those from other parents
- the word of an ‘authority figure’ – professionals can give conflicting advice about interventions
- the collective opinion of a particular group of professionals.
About scientific research and publication
Once researchers do a scientific study to test a therapy or support for autistic children, they usually write a paper about the study and its results. Then they submit the paper for publication in a journal.
Any worthwhile journal will peer review papers as part of its publication process. This means that the paper is sent off to other researchers, who are given no information about who or where the study comes from. The researchers look at the study’s data, methodology, results and conclusions. If they approve the study based on these, the paper can be published.
In the scientific community, value is given to tests results that have been peer reviewed and published. If studies or tests haven't been peer reviewed or published, they don’t have much value.
Also, a single study rarely gets much attention. But if several studies point to the same results, it shows that the results apply to more than a small group of autistic children. As a result, those results are seen as more valuable and gain acceptance.
But things change in science. Over time, new studies might challenge earlier findings. This is a good thing – the research process is about constant questioning, so that existing therapies and supports can be improved or better ones can be developed.
Sometimes researchers publish systematic reviews. This means that they look at all the studies done on a therapy, carefully pulling them together and comparing the results to find and publish some overall conclusions about the intervention. Systematic reviews offer the most reliable conclusions you’ll find about therapies and supports for autistic children.