Autism spectrum disorder interventions: why testing the evidence matters
All interventions for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) make claims about how they’ll help your child. An intervention might claim to improve your child’s symptoms, teach skills or even ‘cure’ ASD. Testing the intervention involves checking what it claims to do against what happens in reality, when real people use the intervention. This process is also called ‘evaluating’ the intervention.
Testing matters. When testing is done properly, it can tell you whether the intervention does what it’s supposed to do.
Scientific tests and autism spectrum disorder interventions
Whether it’s a new skin cream, new computer software or an intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), most people agree that the best way to test something is to use a scientific approach.
Science tests interventions by:
- clearly describing the behaviour that the treatment is supposed to change
- clearly explaining how you do the intervention
- 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 a test. 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 research and publication
Once researchers do a study to test an intervention, they might write a paper about the study and its results and 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 has come 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, weight is given to tests results that have been peer reviewed and published. If studies or tests have not been peer reviewed or published, they don’t carry much weight.
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 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a result, those results begin to gain acceptance.
But things change in science. Over time, new studies might challenge earlier findings about interventions. This is a good thing – the research process is about constant questioning, so that existing therapies can be improved or better ones can be developed.
Sometimes researchers publish systematic reviews of interventions. This means that they look at all studies done on an intervention, 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 an ASD intervention.