Fostering Positive Portrayals of Science-based Autism Treatment in the Media

Conducted by David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment

Thank you all for participating in this group interview. Interacting effectively with the media is something that may not come easily for those advocating for science in the treatment of autism. Many of our most skilled clinicians and prolific researchers have not mastered the requisite skills needed to interact with members of media who write about autism treatment.

Q: Andy, in your view, what is Job #1 when framing science-based autism treatment for the media?

Dr. Andy Bondy: Several interactions with members of the media from Delaware taught us to focus on how the Delaware Autism Program actually helped individual children or families. While trying to describe the broad educational goals of a comprehensive program is interesting to some, exciting changes in family life, job performance, and meaningful community involvement always gathered the most positive attention. Showing children happily engaged in activities that readers or viewers could understand immediately worked better than showing the “practice” time. Doing one-on-one work is often simply the preamble to getting the skill into a functional context -so we highlighted the functional, practical outcome for all ages of our students -including getting real jobs in the community.

Boldly and enthusiastically talk about the positive changes your strategies bring about -talk about helping children and adults become happy (i.e., they smile and laugh more often, tantrum less often), assume greater independence/self-reliance (i.e., they initiate more, become less prompt-dependent), broaden their horizons (i.e., they participate in more varied experiences, increase the number of games they play and the number of playmates). Don’t be concerned, while interacting with media representatives, that you are not holding to the strict definition of phrases they want to hear about -your colleagues will understand!

Q: Mary, can you share a positive experience you had with a member of the media? What made this such a positive experience?

Dr. Mary McDonald: I really had a very positive experience with a photo journalist who did a television segment on a fitness program that we have developed for students with ASD. The reason I believe that it was positive is that we had discussions prior to the onsite interview and filming so that we were on the same page and he had some background information. The segment came through very well and really told the story that I was looking to tell. In addition, after completion of the piece I was able to share resources with the journalist for future reference (i.e., information about ASAT). The journalist was very interested in where to go for information as he stated that he was a “jack of all trades and a master of none.”

Q: Ken, the Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis at Caldwell College has recently received some nice publicity (see http://www.nj.com/news/local/index.ssf/2011/04 college_corner_new_autism_cent.html). Can you share a not-so-positive experience you had with the media? What prominent lesson did you learn from this experience?

Dr. Ken Reeve: A few years ago I was asked by a local newspaper reporter to comment on the lack of evidence surrounding the supposed link between vaccines and autism. To me, this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to promote science to the general public, particularly given that this is a heated topic with profound public health implications. After describing numerous studies that failed to find any link between autism and vaccines, I was profusely thanked for my time and expertise by the reporter. I felt certain that the story would be a nice piece that would provide insights about the state of the science and better inform parents about whether to vaccinate their children. When the story came to print a few days later, however, I was mortified to see that a number of prominent anti-vaccine advocates had been given a large amount of print space to describe every “reason” in the book as to why vaccines did have a hand in causing autism. My comments were merely inserted, almost as a footnote, to provide some counterpoint, albeit a very watered down version of what I had said to the reporter.

Since that time I have learned to ask any reporter I speak to what the purpose of their article/story will be. Not all reporters, however, will let you know in advance how their story will eventually shake out. Some reporters will simply provide you with a forum to say your piece, while others may use your material as a token counterpoint to a much more controversial side of the story. Despite these risks, I still assert that it is important we assume the risks to promote science in autism treatment to the media. After all, if we don’t do the talking, there are certainly many more people invested in pseudo- and anti-science autism issues who will.

Dr. Mary McDonald: There are times that those in the media may quote you inaccurately or, as Ken mentioned, may present something in a different light than you had intended. There was an occasion where I felt that what was printed was inaccurate and was not what was said during the interview. Because of this, I contacted a colleague to be sure that if they had read this media piece that they understood that the media had mis-quoted me. As a result of this experience, I am now very clear in what I share and I also ask to review the piece before it is finalized if possible.

Q: These are excellent suggestions and caveats. How can we better sell “science” to the media?

Dr. Andy Bondy: Effective communication is defined by the listener, not the speaker. Therefore, we will be effective with the media when we speak in terms they already understand. We should not endeavor to introduce our terminology-jargon to the public via media. I would never use terms such as “stimulus control,” “thinning rates of reinforcement,” “stimulus generalization” or even “verbal behavior.” Even if I take time to explain these terms I am immediately distancing myself from the audience. We teach skills that help children interact with teachers, family and peers in ways that make everyone involved happier and less frustrated. When we see a child doing things that are harmful or dangerous we teach alternative ways of handling similar situations.

Anyone planning to speak with anyone in the media should practice speaking without the use of jargon – for without practice, poor, hesitant performances are likely to occur. Perhaps talk to a group of parents or high school students and get some feedback on the best phrases to use to make your points relevant and succinct. When focusing on the broad topic of science, I first point out that science is a group activity – you can’t do “science” alone. The process starts with observations of things everyone can agree took place. For example, I drop a pen and everyone agrees it falls to the floor. Without that agreement in what happened there is no science. Why did it fall? That is a different process: but one that we cannot move toward without first agreeing on what took place. And so it is with behavior. First we must agree on what happened – he spoke, he hit, she smiled – then we can talk about why those things happened. Essentially, we must make science practical and available to everyone – not just PhDs.

Dr. Mary McDonald: I think it is important to remember that although our passion may lie in the science and data, the majority of people are interested in a great story. We often focus too much on the science and forget about the “heartfelt” story that lies within. These are the stories that most people want to read, these are the stories that sell papers, so these are the stories that the journalists are interested in sharing. It is important to tell the story that will be read and be sure to sprinkle in information about science as warranted.

Q: Professionals committed to evidence-based practices should be an integral part of the conversation about autism treatment. How can professionals better position themselves as resources for journalists? In other words, how can they become a “go to” person within their communities?

Dr. Linda Meyer: Be available. If there is an event that is rumored to be heavily covered by the media, be sure to attend and bring your business cards, as well as other informational materials. Introduce yourself as a resource and offer to be interviewed. Once the compelling interview is in print and/or on camera, other media outlets will be more likely to rely on that for follow-up stories and future pieces. Look for and/or set up photo opportunities for later use on your website and newsletter.

It is important to remember to respond to all media requests as promptly as possible. Reporters and producers all work under deadlines and if they don’t get what they need, they will quickly move on; therefore, respond to deadlines. Opportunities come up on a moment’s notice. You need to be ready to take advantage. During an interview, speak in full sentences and frame your answer by echoing the question. This will make it easier for the reporter to plug your “sound bite” into the final piece because it can stand alone. An example would be: Q: “Why should a parent call Autism New Jersey when their child receives a new diagnosis?” A: “Families should reach out to Autism New Jersey as soon as their child receives a diagnosis of autism because…”

After the interview, thank the reporter for his/her time and let them know that you are available for follow up questions, or stories in the future. Writing a thank-you note after the story is run reminds the reporter of your contribution and may increase the likelihood of subsequent contact.

Dr. Ken Reeve: Within your neighborhood, you might be surprised to see how many opportunities there are to speak about science and autism treatment, particularly during April! To identify reporters who write about autism treatment, research online archives of local newspapers to find stories related to this topic. Contact those reporters via email (which is usually available in online sources) and compliment them on their stories. You can then pitch some new stories to them about your activities or do so in a follow-up contact. At Caldwell College, we used this same strategy when we launched our ABA graduate programs and it was picked up in the New York Times! As you establish a relationship with reporters, keep in mind that they tend to prefer interviewees with prior media experience. Once you have done a few stories, write a bio for popular consumption with bulleted accomplishments and what you can do (and where you have done it). For example:

  • Can talk about effective autism treatments
  • Can debunk fad treatments from real ones
  • Can provide description of ABA treatment

Include in your bio all your media activities, with specifics, such as “interviewed by WFFM 1020 AM regarding vaccine controversy on August 10, 2009.” There are a number of additional strategies on interacting with the media that my colleague Sharon Reeve and I contributed to a chapter in Jon Bailey and Mary Burch’s wonderful book 25 Essential Skills for Behavior Analysts.

Q: Those are great suggestions, Ken. Linda, based on your experiences, how can professionals pitch a story to the media? What other steps should they take?

Dr. Linda Meyer: Write a compelling press release (keep it to one page), or e-mail the reporter or producer a detailed pitch letter. Pitching a story to the media starts with the question, “What makes my story different from others?” Answer this question: “Why should my readers/viewers care?” Within the first sentence of a pitch it is important to capture the attention of the reporter or producer. Meyer’s great suggestions, I also recommend a very helpful book to any professional interested in promoting science-based autism treatment to the media. It’s called A Scientist’s Guide To Talking With The Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists, by Hayes and Grossman. Although it doesn’t focus on autism per se, the information in the book is generalizable to speaking to the media about any topic grounded in science.

Dr. Andy Bondy: I would advise looking for podcasts or other easily digestible material on public relations. Disavow yourself of the view that being smart is equivalent to being a good public speaker. Working effectively with individuals with autism and conducting a successful training workshop, talking to the media is a behavior that, like every other one, is honed over time – it does not simply emerge following reading, watching or otherwise passively observing others. Seek out practice opportunities and refine your behavior over time.

Q: Mary, why is it so important for the members of the media to be better educated specifically when it comes to individuals with ASD?

Dr. Mary McDonald: Because autism is such a popular topic in the media, it is rare that a week would ever go by without some sort of media coverage on autism. Although media articles can be a helpful source of information, they also can mislead people in many ways. For example, when parents first learn that their child has an autism diagnosis, they can be overwhelmed and may not know where to begin. Often the media provides information about interventions for individuals with autism. However, this information is often inaccurate or the interventions that are covered in the media are not based on empirical evidence. As parents typically do not have training in the scientific method, it is often difficult for them to differentiate between science-based and non-science based interventions. Therefore they are likely to waste time and money on unproven treatments, which can result in an emotional drain on the family. In addition, there is always potential harm to the child and thereby the entire family. ASAT sponsors Media Watch in order to respond to these types of media pieces and provide feedback to the writer. We are currently implementing our journalist initiative to try to take a more proactive approach and educate the media community about autism interventions before their stories “go to print”.

Thank you all for your insights and suggestions. I appreciate the time you took to share your diverse experiences with our readers.

About the Interviewees

Andy Bondy, PhD, has over 40 years of experience working with children and adults with autism and related developmental disabilities. He served as the Director of a statewide program for students with autism for more than a dozen years. He and his wife, Lori Frost, pioneered the development of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). He has designed the Pyramid Approach to Education as a comprehensive combination of broad-spectrum behavior analysis and functional communication strategies. This approach has been cited as a model program for preschool and school-aged children within public and private school settings. He has published numerous articles, several books, as well as been an invited presenter at conferences around the world. He is the co-founder of Pyramid Educational Consultants, Inc., an internationally-based team of specialists from diverse fields providing guidance and services throughout the world.

Mary E. McDonald, PhD, BCBA-D is an Assistant Professor in the CRSR Department (Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation) where she teaches in the Special Education Program and directs the Advanced Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (an approved BACB course sequence). In addition to her role at Hofstra University, she also directs The Eden II/Genesis Outreach Autism Center. She has nearly 20 years experience directing programs for students with autism from early intervention through adulthood. She completed her PhD in Learning Theory at the CUNY Graduate Center and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral level. Dr. McDonald currently serves on the Board of Council on Autism Services (CAS) and as Vice President of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT). Dr. McDonald has published articles in areas such as: self-management, social reciprocity, inclusion and the use of technology in educating students with ASD.

Linda Meyer, Ed.D., MPA, BCBA-D, CPT is the Executive Director of Autism New Jersey and a consultant in private practice (Linda S. Meyer Consulting LLC). She is the co-founder of the Alpine Learning Group in Paramus, NJ and served as its founding executive director from 1989 until 2005. She serves on the professional advisory boards of several schools and agencies serving individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Linda has presented at regional, national, and international conferences, and authored articles and book chapters on various special education, nonprofit management, and personal fitness topics. She has taught doctoral and masters level students in educational and clinical psychology programs and is currently an adjunct professor at Caldwell College, in Caldwell, NJ. Linda is a member of the NJ Governor’s Council for Research and Medical Treatment of Autism.

Kenneth F. Reeve, PhD, BCBA-D is Professor of Applied Behavior Analysis and Director of Research at the Center for Autism and ABA at Caldwell College, NJ. He is co-author of the book Behaviorspeak: A Glossary of Terms in Applied Behavior Analysis and was an invited contributor to a chapter on interacting with the media in Bailey and Burch’s book 25 Essential Skills for Behavior Analysts. Ken conducts research in concept formation, stimulus control, and teaching applications for children with autism and other developmental disabilities, and regularly publishes and presents his work on these topics.