David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, Nicole Stewart, MSEd, BCBA, Katie Daly, MA, BCBA, LBA, and Erin Leif, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment
One way that ASAT supports dissemination of science-based treatment is through our Media Watch efforts. ASAT’s Media Watch team monitors mainstream media for published information about autism and autism treatments. Understanding that every media contribution has the potential to reach thousands of consumers and service providers, we highlight accurate media depictions of scientifically sound interventions. We also respond to inadvertent promotions of fad, ineffective, or potentially harmful treatments, including those that only showcase testimonials as evidence of effectiveness.
Readers can review our 200+ published letters as models of professional interaction with journalists and media outlets. You will find that we have a long history of following media representations related to autism treatment, including the behavior analytic treatment of autism. Although we address the full array of treatments for autism, we aim to help consumers and providers alike better appreciate the research basis, relevance, and scope of applied behavior analysis (ABA) in many of our letters. In fact, approximately half of our Media Watch letters address ABA, and focus on topics such as misconceptions surrounding ABA, its extensive research basis, appropriate understanding and application of basic principles of behavior, and professional and ethical standards in ABA, as well as the role and offerings of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB). Many of our letters relate to ABA outside of the United States, such as in Israel, the UAE, Australia, Ireland, and Canada to name a few.
The journalism community is at the forefront of sharing information about treatments for individuals with autism and their families. It is imperative that media representation continue to shine light on issues pertaining to the needs of individuals with autism, and how we as a community can support future efforts for effective, science-based treatment. In our ongoing effort to respond to media representation of the behavior analytic treatment of autism, we have compiled a list of several dozen letters we have written over the recent years. These are organized topically below:
Helping readers appreciate the vast research support for ABA: These responses to the media focus on highlighting how much research exists to support ABA and how this body of research is based on the work of hundreds of individuals worldwide that spans many decades. This important clarification is most needed when the media equates ABA to other forms of treatments that are not scientifically validated, suggests that ABA is new or experimental, or questions whether ABA is even an appropriate treatment for autism.
- ASAT Responds to Mother Jones’, “What if everything you knew about disciplining kids was wrong?”
- ASAT Responds To Newsday’s “LI boy with autism, therapy student gets in tune with Zoom”
- ASAT Responds to Theglobeandmail.com’s “Facing down autism: The unconventional (and somewhat controversial) therapy that’s led to recovery”
- ASAT Responds to Huffington Post’s “Autism screening called into question”
- ASAT Responds to High Plains Journal’s “Family uses agriculture as autism therapy tool”
Showcasing positive outcomes of ABA: Research demonstrates that ABA can help individuals with autism learn new skills and become more independent. It is important for media professionals and members of the public to understand the individualized nature of ABA – no two ABA programs are the same! The types of skills addressed within an ABA intervention, and the strategies used to teach new skills and address challenging behavior, are tailored to the individual. These Media Watch articles commend journalists for sharing stories of individuals and families who have experienced the benefits of participating in ABA intervention.
- ASAT Responds to abc.news.go.com’s “How a child with autism became ‘his own man’ after treatment”
- ASAT Responds to Bangor Daily News’ “Old town athlete honor student shares story of overcoming ‘bleak diagnosis’ of autism”
- ASAT Responds to The New York Times’ “Some with autism diagnosis can overcome symptoms, study finds”
- ASAT Responds to Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s “Applied behavior analysis is autism treatment of choice”
- ASAT Responds to Globeandmail.com’s “Embracing autism: Owners of Vancouver Canucks want families of autistic kids to receive support”
Correcting misconceptions about ABA: Despite the vast evidence-base (in the form of scores of peer reviewed journal articles) and support from organizations such as the United States Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics (Hyman et al., 2020), misconceptions still remain about the use of ABA in the treatment of autism. Misconceptions include: a) a lack of understanding of ABA as a treatment option; b) a misunderstanding of one aspect or principle of ABA such as reinforcement; and c) assertion that ABA only applies to young children, to name a few. These Media Watch articles seek to educate journalists and the public about the science of ABA as it is applied to autism treatment. It is imperative that we first share a mutual understanding of the data and evidence before making decisions about treatment options.
- ASAT Responds to The Atlantic’s “Is the most common therapy for autism cruel?”
- ASAT Responds to Ottawacitizen.com’s “The autism story from another point of view”
- ASAT Responds to Moultrie News’ “Teacher to parent – positive reinforcement doesn’t work in the long run”
- ASAT Responds to NBC Boston’s “He was so excited: Boy with autism gets musical therapy from mentor”
- ASAT Responds to Spectrum News’, “Exercise gives children with autism jump on social skills.”
- ASAT Responds to The Globe and Mail’s “Ontario family launches human rights complaint over access to therapy for son with autism”
- ASAT Responds to Au.tv.yahoo.com’s “Classroom cages”
- ASAT Responds to CNN Story: “Study: Early autism intervention in toddlers is effective”
- ASAT responds to engadget’s “Using Lego therapy for autism: How the humble plastic brick could help children’s social development”
- ASAT Responds to Mansfield Journal’s “Shelby coach steps down to help son battle autism”
- ASAT Responds to LegalReader.com’s “How music therapy may help children with autism”
Mentioning ABA as an alternative to the non-evidence-based intervention showcased in the article: Parents and family members affected by autism will likely be dismayed to learn that there are over 500 “treatments” touted for autism, the vast majority with little to no evidence to support its use. While not all these treatments are harmful (though some may be!), utilizing them is costly in terms of precious time, finance, and resources. It also distracts from participation in intervention that is evidence-based. From our experience, this represents one of the most recurring themes within the media representations of autism: a non-evidence-based treatment celebrated as a viable treatment. Here are letters about biomedical interventions being touted as treatments in which we urge consideration of evidence-based treatment and, more often than not ABA, to the author:
- ASAT Responds to Time’s of India, “Ayush club in MGMGH to provide one-stop solution for patients”
- ASAT Responds to The Chicago Tribune’s “I made my autistic son cannabis cookies. They saved him.”
- ASAT Responds to The Hans India’s “Stem cell therapy breathes life into 12 year old autistic girl”
- ASAT Responds to Newsweek’s “Parents are making their children drink bleach to ‘cure’ them of autism”
Below are letters focusing on non-medical interventions touted as treatment. Again, we urge consideration of evidence-based treatment and ABA to the author:
- ASAT Responds to Scientific American’s “Robots, apps, and brain scans: New tools to help the autistic child”
- ASAT Responds to The Indian Express’ “Enacting Shakespeare’s play helps autistic kids in developing communication skills”
- ASAT Responds to ABC News’ “‘Life, Animated’ parents describe how animated characters helped son with autism connect”
- ASAT Responds to DailyMail.com’s “Meet Leka, the vibrating ‘social robot’ designed to help children with autism learn new skills”
- ASAT Responds to smh.com.au’s “Adjunctive therapies providing positive results for autism and other conditions”
- ASAT Responds to Autism Parenting Magazine’s “The wonders and benefits of art for children with autism”
- ASAT Responds to DisabilityScoop.com’s “City says no to boy’s therapy chickens”
- ASAT Responds to Abc.net.au’s “Horses, scientists and the search for effective autism treatment”
Fortunately, in some cases, our letters highlight the journalist’s significant concerns about non-evidence-based intervention discussed in their story and we captured these opportunities to remind readers about the relevance of evidence-based treatment and/or evidence base of ABA.
- ASAT Responds to The Times’ “Optician banned over claim he could treat people with autism”
- ASAT Responds to CBC News’ “Treatment to remove metals from children with autism unproven and risky, but no clear regulations”
- ASAT Responds to Psychology Today’s “3 ways that pseudoscientific therapies can be harmful”
- ASAT Responds to Medscape.com’s “Unproven therapies are ‘muddying’ cell and gene advances”
- ASAT Responds to cbc.ca’s “Mom says she was duped by stranger after posting ‘amazing’ video of son with autism”
Highlighting ABA’s place in early intervention: ABA has many applications, among them being intensive, early intervention. Studies have consistently demonstrated that most children who receive ABA during early intervention consistently have significant improvements in communication and language outcomes (e.g., Fuller et al., 2019; Makrygianni et al., 2018). These Media Watch letters aim to emphasize the role that ABA plays in early intervention, which is necessary to allow parents to make informed decisions at a critical stage in their child’s development.
- ASAT Responds to The New York Times’ “Early treatment for autism is critical, new report says”
- ASAT Responds to Examiner.com’s “Reshaping public misconceptions of parenting a child with autism”
- ASAT Responds to NYTimes.com’s “Parenting expert panel withholds support for early autism screening”
- ASAT Responds to TheAtlantic.com’s “1 in 68 Children now has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder-why?”
- ASAT Responds to NBC News’ “Brain scans detect signs of autism in high-risk babies before age 1”
- ASAT responds to news.com.au’s “Mum Julia Coorey on surviving an autism diagnosis and importance of early diagnosis”
- ASAT Responds to Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Tech hopes to develop early warning tools and treatments for autism”
- ASAT Responds to Autism Parent Magazine’s “Types of autism behavior interventions”
- ASAT Responds to NBC News’, “Brain scans detect signs of autism in high-risk babies before age 1”
Highlighting ABA’s application with adolescents and young adults: In addition to ABA’s application in early intervention, ABA can be widely used to teach skills and safely address interfering behaviors for adolescents and adults (e.g., Watkins et al., 2017, Wong et al., 2015). Initially, ABA focused heavily on the early childhood population. As that population has aged, there has been a slow and necessary shift to development of support systems for adolescents and adults with autism. It is important to keep these opportunities for services at the forefront of the conversation. The following Media Watch letters focus on the application of ABA across the lifespan.
- ASAT Responds to Psychologytoday.com’s “Making severe autism visible”
- ASAT Responds to NBC News Dateline’s “On the brink”
- ASAT Responds to ABC.net.au’s “Hope for autistic teens: How applied behaviour analysis helped Ian Rogerson’s son Jack overturn bleak prognosis”
- ASAT Responds to The Inquirer’s, “Falling off the cliff”
- ASAT responds to Click on Detroit’s “Ford aims to boost hiring of employees with autism
- ASAT responds to FoxPhilly.com’s “Parents of autistic children worry what life will bring when they’re adults”
Sharing concerns about access/funding for ABA: Despite increasing autism awareness globally, access to effective, science-based treatment is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, even if an individual is able to access an array of treatment options, funding this treatment represents another major obstacle for many families. We appreciate members of the media writing about the challenges faced by autism families in securing treatment for their loved ones. The following Media Watch letters respond to articles which both call attention to the lack of funding options for ABA treatment and provide suggestions to those facing these daunting challenges.
- ASAT Responds to Associated Press’ “Parking lot plea by mom to CEOs leads to autism therapy for child”
- ASAT Responds to AutismDailyNewscast.com’s “Autism cost estimated to reach nearly $500 billion”
- ASAT Responds to bSci21.org’s “U.S. Dept of Education: ABA not enough for autism treatment”
- ASAT Responds to Irish Times’ “Best practice autism treatment ‘will vanish’ under proposals” –
- ASAT Responds to the Ottawa Citizen’s “A national strategy for autism would save families and save taxpayers’ money. So where is it?”
- ASAT Responds to The Washington Post’s “Nowhere to go: Young people with severe autism languish weeks or longer in hospitals”
- ASAT Responds to Stripes.com, “Tricare seeking right mix of therapies for kids with autism”
Showcasing the expansion of services in underserved communities and regions: Sadly, there are many underserved communities and regions that may not adequately benefit from evidence-based practice. One of our many objectives is to help families avoid wasting valuable time and resources on unsubstantiated treatments, particularly those prematurely or erroneously touted as “cutting edge.” In some of our Media Watch letters, we highlight the emergence of programs in regions that have been historically underserved and acknowledge current efforts to provide ABA-based interventions. If emerging programs are not utilizing ABA, we recommend that program development and expansion incorporate ABA.
- ASAT Responds to jspace.news.com’s “Israeli Institutes open first-of-its-kind autism center in Middle East”
- ASAT Responds to Khaleej Times’ “The Doris Duan-Young Autism Center: Changing lives one at a time.”
- ASAT Responds to MEDICC Review’s “Autism spectrum disorder in Cuba: Comprehensive and coordinated response”
- ASAT Responds to 9news.com.au’s “‘Unbelievable’: The therapy parents claim is transforming the lives of children with autism”
- ASAT Responds to KEPR TV’s “ABA program launches to help underserved autistic children”
- ASAT Responds to The Guardian’s “‘France is 50 years behind’: The ‘state scandal’ of French autism treatment”
Authors’ Note: We are grateful to Barbara Jamison, Renee Wozniak, Elizabeth Zink, and Jane Barbin, along with all of our Media Watch writers, who have helped create such an extensive library of letters.
Fuller, E. A., & Kaiser, A. P. (2019). The effects of early intervention on social communication outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-18.
Hyman, S. L., Levy, S. E., & Myers, S. M. (2020). Identification, evaluation, and management of children with autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 145(1).
Makrygianni, M. K., Gena, A., Katoudi, S., & Galanis, P. (2018). The effectiveness of applied behavior analytic interventions for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A meta-analytic study. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 51, 18-31.
US Surgeon General (2000). Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health – subsection on Autism. http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/
Watkins, L., O’Reilly, M., Ledbetter-Cho, K., Lang, R., Sigafoos, J., Kuhn, M., … & Caldwell, N. (2017). A meta-analysis of school-based social interaction interventions for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 4(4), 277-293.
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Brock, M. E., Plavnick, J. B., Fleury, V. P., & Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism spectrum disorder: A comprehensive review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 1951-1966. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z
Citation for this article:
Celiberti, D., Stewart, N., Daly, K., & Leif, E. (2021). Media representations of the behavior analytic treatment of autism: Highlighting a decade of ASAT’s efforts to promote accuracy. Science in Autism Treatment, 18(4).
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