Countering Evidence Denial and the Promotion of Pseudoscience in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Smith, I. M., & MacDonald, N. E. (2017). Countering evidence denial and the promotion of pseudoscience in autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 10(8), 1334-1337.

Reviewed by Nicole Stewart, MSEd, BCBA, LBA-NY and David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment

Our mission at ASAT is to rely on the best available evidence to share high quality, timely, and science-based information about treatment for individuals with autism. This mission is aligned with many other science-based organizations globally which aim to combat misinformation and support evidenced-based decision making. However, many barriers exist between creating sound content and it reaching the consumers effectively.

These barriers may include something as simple as the competing abundance of information available on the internet or in the media. At the time of this article, a Google search for “autism treatments” yielded almost 50 million results. Some showcase evidence-based interventions while the vast majority do not. With so many websites and resources that offer treatment suggestions, how does one know what’s evidence-based and what’s not? What’s science-based and what’s quackery?

It may also be that families or friends have different experiences, and those are easier to access than reading articles. ASAT covers these issues in Explaining Decision to Use Science-based Autism Treatments as well as The Pitfalls of Testimonials. Testimonials and anecdotal stories are powerful and connect to the emotional side of decision making, which can distract parents of individuals with autism.

One of the largest barriers is the strong and persistent voices of denialists that drown out science-based rationale. Denialists, as opposed to those who may disregard the evidence, actively campaign against science-based interventions. Some of these individuals are very adept at using social media to convey their messages and have the time, resources, and followings to be very impactful.

In 2017, Isabel M. Smith and Noni E. MacDonald wrote a commentary titled “Countering Evidence Denial and the Promotion of Pseudoscience in Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Smith and MacDonald sought to expand work completed by the World Health Organization [WHO], (2016) on reducing the impact of vocal anti-vaxxers. They aimed to limit the influence and impact created by outspoken deniers, not to change the minds of the deniers. This article, along with the WHO guidelines (2016), is a valuable tool to inoculate clinicians and caregivers from critics.

The authors focus on understanding the denialist point of view and reasoning. That requires understanding why one may actively work against science-based treatments and how that person’s belief system got them to that viewpoint. Recognizing that perspective allows one to best generate a counter argument that is most likely to resonate with any audience that may be publicly privy to the opinions and “facts” at hand. Similar to the WHO guidelines (2016), Smith and MacDonald utilize a three-step process: identify the core topics; identify the techniques being used; and design answers carefully and appropriately. This stepped-out process limits reactionary responses from the denialists that may undermine actual evidence and provides a useful framework for individualizing the response.

The authors utilized this three-step technique to generate a response with the example of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) as a treatment for autism. The authors specifically recommended using language such as, “it’s important for you as parents who want the best for their children…” to demonstrate understanding of the core topics. Their respectful language does not undermine the expertise of the presenter on HBOT. Instead, the authors focused on the idea that positive effects of HBOT have only been observed with other conditions and not with autism. They note that it is important to add facts that support scientific-based treatments for autism to give the audience information for further consideration.

Smith and McDonald (2017) argued that a response must incorporate three important things: (1) It is important to unmask the techniques being used when conveying the misinformation; (2) The misinformation needs to be corrected; and (3) Accurate information and evidence needs to be offered as a replacement. Their article serves as a broad introduction into addressing these potentially stressful confrontations. However, it is important not to jump right into using these techniques without proper planning. Instead, this should be done with careful attention to the content of your message and how it can be best delivered. It is our hope that future publications will continue to expand definitions, strategies, and break down each step.

Readers can use some of the following resources that complement the values of this article and become better prepared to confront pseudoscientific statements in a public forum:

In addition, we shared links to several SIAT articles that bear relevance to the topics at hand.

Citation for this article:

Stewart, N., & Celiberti, D. (2020). A review of Countering evidence denial and the promotion of pseudoscience in autism spectrum disorder. Science in Autism Treatment, 17(11).

Related articles:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email