Science, Pseudoscience and Antiscience Theories in Autism:
Gina Green, PhD, BCBA-D and Lora Perry, MS, BCBA
“Your child has autism.” With those words, a parent’s world comes crashing down. What to do? Choosing a treatment is one of the most important decisions the parents of a person with autism will ever have to make. How do parents find truly effective treatment for their child? In an ideal world, the person who dropped the autism diagnosis on a family would provide the answer. But the unfortunate fact is that many who make this diagnosis are not well informed about the wide array of autism treatments, and the degree to which these treatments have proven effective (or not). So until the day comes when parents can count on data based professional guidance, they will need to become very discerning about the various treatments, therapies, and programs that are claimed to be effective for autism. The same applies to those who are concerned with helping families get effective services. There is a need to do a lot of homework, and to do it quickly. Why the urgency? Because the stakes are high, and every moment is precious.
Approaches to answering fundamental questions about how the world works can be grouped into three broad categories: science, pseudoscience, and antiscience. Science uses specific, time-honored tools to put hunches or hypotheses to logical and empirical tests. Some of those tools include operational definitions of the phenomena of interest; direct, accurate, reliable, and objective measurement; controlled experiments; reliance on objective data for drawing conclusions and making predictions; and independent verification of effects.
Parents and professionals can protect people with autism from the harms of bogus and ineffective treatments by exercising healthy skepticism, and asking several questions of everyone who claims to have an effective intervention for autism: What is the intervention, precisely? Exactly what is it supposed to do? Have its effects been tested in controlled experiments using direct, objective measures? If so, were those studies published in peer- reviewed scientific journals? What did studies show about positive effects and negative side effects? Did the effects carry over beyond the immediate treatment setting? Is there another scientifically validated treatment that is similarly effective but has fewer negative side effects? Who will administer this treatment, and how can I be sure they are qualified to do so? How will its effects on this individual be evaluated, and by whom? What will happen if we do nothing? Listen to the answers, but don’t take them at face value. Seek out published research on the treatment, and, if necessary, someone with expertise in scientific research methodology to help you evaluate it. Also take note when no answers—and no solid supporting studies — are provided. What is not known or said matters, too.
When families seek treatment for a child diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, they aren’t simply given a long list of interventions that someone somewhere believes to be effective, and told to choose from that list on their own; they can usually expect to be informed about treatments that are based on sound scientific research. Why settle for anything less when the diagnosis is autism?
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ABOUT GINA GREEN, PHD, BCBA-D
Executive Director, Association of Professional Behavior Analysts
Gina Green received a PhD in psychology (Analysis of Behavior) from Utah State University in 1986 following undergraduate and master’s-degree studies at Michigan State University. Dr. Green has authored numerous publications on behavioral treatment of individuals with disabilities and the experimental and applied analysis of behavior. She serves or has served on the editorial boards of several professional journals in behavior analysis, developmental disabilities, and psychology. Dr. Green co-edited the books Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism and Making a Difference: Behavioral Intervention for Autism. She has served the Association for Behavior Analysis International and the California Association for Behavior Analysis in several roles each, including President. She was on the Board of Directors of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board from 2002-08, also serving as Chair of the Continuing Education Committee, and on the Board of Trustees of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies for 15 years.
Currently Dr. Green sits on the professional advisory boards of several autism programs and organizations. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Behavior Analysis International. Other recognitions and awards include Psychology Today’s Mental Health Professional of the Year (2000); honorary Doctor of Science degree from The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland (2005); California Association for Behavior Analysis Award for Outstanding Contributions to Behavior Analysis (2013); New York State Association for Behavior Analysis John W. Jacobson Award for Contributions to Behavior Analysis (2013); Berkshire Association for Behavior Analysis & Therapy Sidman Award for Enduring Contributions to Applied Behavior Analysis (2014); Friend of the Kendall Centers, Modesto, CA (2014); and Autism Speaks Provider of the Year (2014). Dr. Green lectures and consults widely on autism and related disorders, behavioral research, effective interventions for people with disabilities, and public policies affecting the practice of applied behavior analysis.
ABOUT LORA PERRY, MS, BCBA
Board Certified Behavior Analyst
Lora Perry has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst since 2004. She has developed and led organizations focused on serving children with autism, intellectual disabilities and emotional/behavioral disabilities, combining both her knowledge of clinical programming and her business management skills. Prior to entering private practice, Ms. Perry was an executive with Providence Service Corporation, a global human services organization headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Ms. Perry served as the National Director of Autism Services for Providence, focused on data-driven treatment planning, progress monitoring, resource utilization, and outcome monitoring.
As the parent of twin sons with autism, Ms. Perry started the Merrymeeting Center for Child Development in 2000, a school and treatment center for children with autism. Merrymeeting was eventually subsumed into Providence, where Ms. Perry served as Executive Director for ABA Services at Providence of Maine. In this role, she utilized applied behavior analysis to serve children, families, communities and agencies overcoming autism spectrum disorders, and emotional/behavioral disabilities.
Ms. Perry attended New Hampshire College, where she earned her Master of Science degree in Business Education. Today Perry works not only with children, but also with teams transitioning children with special needs to adulthood, and with businesses seeking to leverage the power of behavior analysis to improve organizational management.