By David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D and Renee Wozniak, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment
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. Additionally, 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, readers are put in the position of being personally responsible for evaluating the quality and suitability of the information being presented to them.
We wish you did not have to work so hard to differentiate good information from bad. This can be extraordinarily difficult in the beginning of the journey to find effective treatment options, such as when an autism diagnosis has just been received. Unfortunately, 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. Sadly, that is the reality of autism treatment today with over 500 treatments being touted.
As you may appreciate, 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. 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? If so, in what ways?
- Are those ways observable, measurable, substantial, and meaningful?
- Does the article or story report the costs of the intervention? Are these costs reasonable, both in monetary and human resource terms?
- Are there any reports of harm imposed by this intervention? What are the risks and potential 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? Did the writer reveal any limitations to the studies?
- 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 treatments in an effort to increase access to effective treatment for the autism community.
Citation for this article:
Celiberti, D., & Wozniak, R. (2016). Caveat Lector: Let the reader beware. Science in Autism Treatment, 13(1), 8-9.
Other ASAT articles that may be of interest:
- Ten Resources for Consumers to Evaluate Information Sources
- Characteristics and Qualities of Autism Websites
- Resources for Journalists: Ten Websites Supporting Science Journalism
- Explaining Decision to Use Science-based Autism Treatments
- Questions to Ask Marketers of Autism Interventions
- Standing Up for Science on Parent Social Media