Autism Treatment in the Media

By Daniel W. Mruzek, PhD, BCBA-D, ASAT Board Member

Media1The topic of treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has all the ingredients for a sensational media product: widespread public interest, fast-paced news cycle, potential for emotional appeal, and, of course, controversy. And, members of the media appear to recognize this. For example, my simple Google News search using the term “autism treatment” reveals 17,100 results representing media products delivered through newspapers, magazines, blogs, television and other media outlets. Many of these news items are about treatment funding and related politics, but others focus upon specific treatments, often written in provocative ways. As a point of reference, in the last few weeks, ASAT’s Media Watch group (https://www.asatonline.org/for-media-professionals/media-watch/) has responded to news products on a wide range of ASD treatment topics, including interventions with a substantial scientific record (applied behavior analytic [ABA] intervention for early intervention), as well as those with little or no scientific grounding (e.g., therapy chickens, the Son Rise Program, sensory integration).

How should we approach these presentations of ASD treatment in the media? At least three key items are worthy of consideration: (1) the writer’s description of the nature of ASD, (2) his or her consideration of the science underlying the ASD treatment, and (3) the extent to which he or she maintained a healthy skepticism about the benefits of the intervention. There appears to be a clear range of knowledge about ASD in the fields of journalism. Some writers accurately describe ASD as a neurodevelopmental disorder emerging early in the individual’s life, resulting in deficits in communication and social wherewithal, with concurrent repetitive thought and/or behavior (i.e., perseveration and/or stereotypy). Mischaracterizations of ASD, such as the use of inaccurate metaphors, like describing ASD as being “trapped in one’s own world” or over-emphasizing some feature of the disorder (e.g., describing sensory defensiveness or inability to integrate auditory stimuli as a defining feature of the diagnosis) provides an unsuspecting reader with an inaccurate understanding of ASD and may contribute to unrealistic expectations about the benefits of therapies targeting these areas.

The media writer’s appreciation of the scientific status of the ASD treatment being discussed is also important. Wittingly or unwittingly, a journalist may take the untested treatment claims of the marketer of a new treatment or the testimonial statement of an interviewed consumer as “proof positive” that the intervention is valid. Indeed, in an effort to appeal to their readership, some writers may suggest that an invalidated procedure is a “breakthrough” or “new hope” for families affected by ASD or include emotionally charged images suggesting recovery or astonishing improvement. Most often, this type of reporting is irresponsible because it may lead unsuspecting families to pursue expensive, time-consuming and wholly ineffective treatments for their members affected by ASD. At the least, responsible journalistic practice would entail qualifying such reports with clear statements regarding the state of the science for the treatment, especially when such evidence is scant or nonexistent. ASAT’s compilation of treatment summaries (https://www.asatonline.org/for-parents/learn-more-about-specific-treatments/) is one quick-reference tool that journalist may use to check the scientific status of treatments that are presented in their reporting.

To be sure, the journalistic practice of some journalists is grounded in the practice of scientific skepticism, and this commitment is reflected in the quality of their writing. By “scientific skepticism”, we mean that these journalists take care to present new treatment ideas with caution, recognizing that (1) treatment progress is usually one-step-at-a-time; (2) what sounds too good to be true usually is not; and (3) experimental research published in peer-reviewed journals are a key way of determining whether a particular treatment is helpful, not the slick words of a marketer or the emotional appeal of fanciful video recordings.

As “consumers” of treatment for ASD, families can adopt a skeptical mindset when confronted with media portrayals of autism treatments. This does not mean that they reject new ideas at “face value” – far from it! We can all be excited about the prospect of new, emerging interventions. However, it does mean that, along with our excitement, we exercise a cautious skepticism and ask, “What’s the science behind that approach?” And, we watch for signs of potential baloney, including the use of glowing testimonials, grandiose statements by marketers and emotional appeal. Asking trusted, credentialed experts (e.g., physicians, psychologists, behavior analysts) about potential treatments presented in the media is one way to increase the odds that family members can connect loved ones affected by ASD with valid treatment options.

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Mruzek, D. (2014). Focus on Science: Autism Treatment in the Media. Science in Autism Treatment, 11(2), 30-31.