One of the dangers of widespread pseudoscience is that it can give some treatment providers and proponents an excuse to do what they feel like doing or what is easier for them divorced from published scientific support and established best practice. With that, we were delighted to see your recent article in Psychology Today, 3 Ways That Pseudoscientific Therapies Can Be Harmful and agree wholeheartedly with your concerns. Our organization, the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, promotes safe, effective, science-based treatments for people with autism by disseminating accurate, timely, and scientifically sound information, advocating for the use of scientific methods to guide treatment, and combating unsubstantiated, inaccurate and false information about autism and its treatment.
Parents of individuals with autism are no strangers to pseudoscience. In fact, the vast majority of the 500+ treatments for autism lack adequate scientific support. In your article, you highlight the published work of Scott Liliefeld, Steven Jay Lynn, and Jeffrey Lohr and focus on three salient concerns. All of these bear tremendous relevance to autism treatment.
#1 Pseudoscientific therapies can directly produce harm.
From fabricated allegations of sexual abuse in facilitated communication to death related to chelation therapy, the autism community has witnessed far too many cases of harm. Much of this is attributed to unregulated products, under monitored/poorly implemented procedures, or professionals unethically practicing outside their area of expertise and training. Sadly, the current landscape of hundreds of so-called “treatments” provides a myriad of risks for individuals with autism and the families who are desperately trying to help them realize their fullest potential.
#2 Pseudoscientific therapies can indirectly deprive time and financial resources from supported treatments.
There is no shortage of ads promising the moon on the internet. With just a few clicks, parents of individuals with autism will encounter skillfully marketed pseudoscience that will distract them from the very best that science has to offer. In the worst cases, it will rob them of previous time, finances, and hope. Collectively, the “try anything and everything” mantra easily leads parents to put quantity over quality with respect to treatment. Furthermore, the absence of scientific literature for many “treatments” hampers our understanding of potentially negative interactions between scientifically validated treatments with those that are not. As you astutely state in your article, pseudoscience indeed separates individuals from interventions that we know to be effective based on published, peer reviewed research. The image of an eclipse powerfully illustrates this sad reality.
#3 Pseudoscientific therapies can further erode the foundations and trust in scientific professions that employ their use.
The ethical codes of most of the disciplines that treat autism mandate evidence-based practice, yet we see abundant examples of individuals violating their scope of practice. Many individualsare practicing outside their discipline, failing to share the support or lack of support for the interventions implemented or recommended. Many professional organizations, such as state psychological associations, assume the important task of protecting the discipline from poor or otherwise unethical practices but sometimes lack the awareness or the resources to tackle this to the extent that families of individuals with autism deserve.
As someone who has specialized in autism my entire career, I am well aware of a long history of fads and false promises. I was surprised and saddened to read all of these instances of pseudoscience you referenced deleteriously impacting individuals with an array of disorders and conditions.
We can do better. Your well written article is a step in that direction so we thank you for your commitment to warning of the dangers of pseudoscience.
David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D, Executive Director
Association for Science in Autism Treatment