Currently 1 in every 45 children has a diagnosis of Autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder. As Autism becomes more prevalent, researchers, medical professionals, and parents continue to search for effective treatments. Numerous varieties of treatment options exist but very few have a significant body of research behind them. Oftentimes, when parents are trying to decide which treatment option might be best for their child, they will read articles in newspapers, magazines, or on-line about research studies which validate the treatment. The problem is that these studies and the way they are reported can be misleading. They may imply that the study confirms the efficacy of the treatment when in fact it would require many more studies to qualify the treatment as evidence-based.
Why does it matter if a treatment is evidence-based?
Autism treatments can be extremely expensive and time-consuming and an evidence-based treatment has a solid base of research behind it which can be used to confirm whether it is worth the cost and effort. Other treatments with only a few studies behind them may sound convincing but have not been tested rigorously enough to validate that they will be effective for most individuals with Autism. In addition to the number of studies, the quality of the studies is also important. A vast number of poorly conducted research studies on a treatment do not make that treatment evidence-based. With that in mind, here are three things to look for when reading and evaluating Autism treatments.
1: Where was it published?
When you read about a treatment from any source, take a minute to look up the study on Google Scholar (this is one of the options at the top of the Google page, along with Images, etc.). You can search by the authors’ names or the treatment name and the year. This should tell you what journal, if any, the research has been published in. Another quick search about that journal should be able to tell you whether or not it is peer-reviewed. This information might be on the journal’s website or Wikipedia page, if it has one, or on any number of lists which keep track of peer-reviewed journals. You can also look by searching for “Is [journal name] peer reviewed.” A peer-reviewed journal requires all entries to be reviewed by a number of other researchers in the field to evaluate the study’s design and implementation. If a study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it means the study was conducted well enough to be reasonably confident that the results are meaningful. This provides some extra assurance that the treatment might be worth implementing.
2: How many participants were included?
A study may have anywhere from 1 to over 1,000 participants. Studies with small numbers of participants can be valuable tools in evaluating treatments but unless there are a great number of them, you cannot reasonably make the assumption that the treatment will be effective for most of the individuals in the population. In other words, the fact that a treatment was effective for 5 children does not mean that it will be effective for your child, who may be drastically different from the participants. The fact that a treatment was effective for 1,000 children implies that there is a good chance the treatment will be effective for most individuals with Autism regardless of their potential differences.
3: How many studies have been published?
It is also important to consider the number of studies which have been conducted. If a large number of studies with a small number of participants have been conducted, that may still indicate that the treatment may be worthwhile as the effects have been replicated by a good number of researchers. If only one study with 1,000 participants has been conducted then it may indicate that the treatment will be effective but it must be replicated by other researchers before it is considered evidence-based. You can search for other studies on the same topic by searching for the treatment in Google Scholar and looking in the references section of the current study.
All of the information listed above is important to consider before choosing a treatment for your child. Taking a few extra minutes to research a treatment may save you a great deal of time and money and offer the greatest opportunity to succeed.