The decisions of many consumers are influenced by what they read in the newspaper or on the Internet and hear about on television or radio. It is our belief that access to effective treatment for the autism community is enhanced by accurate representations of autism treatment by these media outlets. Unfortunately, many media representations are fraught with inaccuracies. Here’s what you need to know about spotting the difference between fake and real news.
Effective treatments typically receive less press attention because their providers are often focusing on maximizing outcomes in an accountable manner rather than on soliciting media attention. They are also limited by ethics codes on how they can promote their treatment and services.
Many of you may be familiar with the Latin phrase, “Caveat Emptor,” which means “the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made.” With scores of “miracle cures” and “breakthroughs” for autism receiving widespread media attention well before they have been shown to be beneficial through credible, peer-reviewed research, “Caveat Lector: Let the Reader Beware” seems to be a very suitable guiding principle across all media platforms (e.g., print, radio, television, Internet) particularly at a time when “fake news” is becoming commonplace. In other words, the reader is put in the position of being him/herself responsible for evaluating the quality and suitability of information being presented to him or her.
As a consumer, you bear a responsibility to scrutinize sensational claims related to various autism treatments and to be knowledgeable enough to consider such stories through a skeptical lens. We wish you did not need to work so hard to differentiate good information from bad, but that is the sad reality of autism treatment today, with 500+ treatments being touted. Unfortunately, many writers and journalists are not well versed in research methods, unless they specifically write about science, which is a very small portion of all individuals writing about autism out there. With all this in mind, when reading or hearing about an autism story in the media, please consider the following questions:
About the Intervention
- Does the article or story describe how the intervention actually helps individuals with autism? In what ways?
- Are those ways observable and measurable? Substantial? Meaningful?
- Does the article or story report the costs of the intervention? Are these costs reasonable, both in monetary and human resource terms?
- Is there any report of harm imposed by this intervention? What are the risks? What are the side effects? Does the article or story appear balanced between these?
- Who can carry out this intervention? What kind of education, training and supervision do individuals need to have before implementing the intervention?
About the Experts
- Whom did the author interview for this story and what are this person’s qualifications? Is he/she presented as an expert?
- Is the interviewee making claims of efficacy/effectiveness that are supported by scientific data? What does the interviewee/expert stand to gain from this story? Who may benefit financially from this particular media exposure? How would they benefit?
About the Underlying Scientific Support
- Did the article or story mention the existence of research articles published in peer-reviewed journals documenting the efficacy of the intervention method discussed? If not, could it mean that no such research exists?
- If so, did the writer comment on whether these studies were well designed? Are any limitations to the studies revealed?
- Is this study or studies presented as an extension of existing work, or rather sensationalized as a “breakthrough,” keeping in mind that often interventions are pitched as a “breakthrough” when indeed, they are not?
- On the other hand, does the author acknowledge the absence of underlying research? Is this acknowledgement rightly framed as a concern or rather just potentially baseless but encouraging statements suggesting that “groundbreaking research” is coming soon?
Some Final Questions to Consider
- Are other media outlets reporting on this story or topic? If yes, favorably or unfavorably? Did they consider research data in their articles?
- Has ASAT responded to this article via its Media Watch efforts? Please visit this page to peruse our library of archived media watch letters.
- Has the author consulted with an unbiased and knowledgeable individual for his/her input about the intervention described (e.g., someone who is not personally benefitting from the story or someone with a strong grasp of research)?
Sadly, inaccurate and biased portrayals of autism treatments in the media are abundant. In our experiences, inaccurate portrayals often fall within the following themes:
- Exaggerating the research support for an intervention for which little or no research exists;
- Ignoring the research basis that may already exist for the treatment in focus;
- Disregarding the relevance of science;
- Disregarding position statements from various professional organizations that may warn against or discourage the use of a particular treatment; and
- Failing to acknowledge research that does NOT support a particular intervention.
Being mindful of these themes will enable you to truly embody the principle of “Caveat Lector.” Please consider liking our Facebook page as we routinely showcase our Media Watch efforts. ASAT’s Media Watch responds to both accurate and inaccurate media portrayals of autism treatment in an effort to increase access to effective treatment for the autism community.
Celiberti, D., & Wozniak, R. (2016). Caveat Lector: Let the reader beware. Science in Autism Treatment, 13(1), 8-9.
David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, is the part time Executive Director of ASAT and Past-President, a role he served from 2006 and 2012. He is the Co-Editor of ASAT’s newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Rutgers University in 1993. Dr. Celiberti has served on a number of advisory boards and special interest groups in the field of autism, applied behavior analysis, and early childhood education, and been an active participant in local fundraising initiatives to support after school programming for economically disadvantaged children. He works in private practice and provides consultation to public and private schools and agencies in underserved areas. He has authored several articles in professional journals and presents frequently at regional, national, and international conferences. In prior positions, Dr. Celiberti taught courses related to applied behavior analysis (ABA) at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, supervised individuals pursuing BCBA certifications, and conducted research in the areas of ABA, family intervention, and autism.
Renee Wozniak, PhD, BCBA-D, joined the ASAT Board of Directors in 2016. Prior to serving as a Board Member, Renée was a part of ASAT’s Externship, where she assumed the roles of Media Watch Co-Coordinator and Media Watch Lead. Renée received her Ph.D. in Special Education, focusing on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), from Arizona State University. She has worked in the fields of ASD and ABA in a variety of capacities since 1998, serving in public schools as a special education teacher, behavior intervention teacher specialist and district-wide autism trainer, and in clinical and home-based ABA programs as a research assistant, clinical/behavior interventionist, and program supervisor. Renée has trained families, therapists, teachers, teacher candidates, paraprofessionals, administrators, and others working with individuals with autism, and has instructed master’s level ABA, ASD, research and special education courses. She continues to stay involved in the field as a home-based ABA program supervisor, and as an instructor in ABA and ASD master’s degree programs. Renée is passionate about helping individuals with autism and their families by supporting and disseminating scientific research in autism treatment.