Children with autism spectrum disorder struggle with communication, sometimes driving parents and educators to seek interventions and “therapies” that have been thoroughly discredited by previous studies, say researchers at Emory Health Sciences. Specialists in communication disorders and psychology are also not sharing the latest scientific evidence about autism interventions effectively to the public.
The study was announced on Feb. 26, 2015 and was published as a commentary called “The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example,” and was recently published by the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. “Hope is a great thing, I’m a strong believer in it, but the false hope buoyed by discredited therapies can be cruel, and it may prevent people from trying an intervention that actually could deliver benefits,” said Scott Lilienfeld, lead author and a psychologist at Emory University.
Some treatments for autism that have shown little or no success over the years are antifungal interventions, bleach enemas, chelation therapy, gluten or casein free diets, hyperbaric oxygen sessions, magnetic shoe inserts, sheep stem cell injections, and weighted vests. The study focused on “facilitated communication” (FC) as a case sample.
FC claims that a nonverbal person with autism and related disorders can communicate through guided typing on a keyboard or letter pad. A facilitator supports the autistic person’s arms as the autistic person types words and complete sentences. The method was introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s, and has been convincingly debunked by researchers. Studies have demonstrated that the facilitators were unconsciously guiding the autistic person’s hands towards the desired letters.
“The emotional appeal of FC is very powerful and understandable,” Lilienfeld says. “And no doubt the overwhelming majority of people who use FC are sincere and well-meaning. The problem is, it doesn’t work.” Variations of technique have surfaced under new names such as “supported typing” or “rapid prompting.”
Lilienfeld and his team reviewed popular and academic literature, and previously published surveys about practitioner use. They observed that use of FC continues to be prevalent in spite of scientific refutation and say that their findings underscore the need for autism experts to do a better of job of educating the public about what does – and does not – work for autism.