The communication struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder can drive parents and educators to try anything to understand their thoughts, needs and wants. Unfortunately, specialists in psychology and communication disorders do not always communicate the latest science so well.
These factors make the autism community especially vulnerable to interventions and "therapies" that have been thoroughly discredited, says Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.
"Hope is a great thing, I'm a strong believer in it," Lilienfeld says. "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."
The authors describe a litany of treatments for autism that have been attempted with little or no success over the years, including gluten- and casein-free diets, antifungal interventions, chelation therapy, magnetic shoe inserts, hyperbaric oxygen sessions, weighted vests, bleach enemas, sheep-stem-cell injections and many more.
As a case study, however, the article focuses on one intervention in particular: Facilitated Communication, or FC.
By reviewing published surveys of practitioner use and canvassing the popular and academic literatures, Lilienfeld and his co-authors show that FC continues to be widely used and widely disseminated in much of the autism community despite its scientific refutation. They examine a number of potential reasons for the surprising persistence of FC and other autism fads. They note that the inherent difficulties in treating autism may give rise to an understandable desire for quick fixes of many kinds.
Lilienfeld and his colleagues underscore the pressing need for experts in the autism field to better educate the public about not only what works for the condition, but what does not.