According to a 2014 National Consumers League poll, 29% of American adults believe that childhood vaccinations can trigger autism. To many, these views are difficult to comprehend. After all, multiple controlled studies conducted on huge international samples have debunked any statistical association between vaccines and autism. Moreover, when the Danish government removed thimerosal – a mercury-bearing preservative that most anti-vaccine advocates regard as the suspect ingredient – from its vaccines in the late 1990s, the rates of autism went up rather than down. Why, then, does the belief persist?
Well, it’s not that surprising. The false link between autism and vaccines is merely the tip of a massive iceberg of fads and misconceptions. In a 2008 review, psychologist Tristram Smith of the University of Rochester Medical Center identified more than 50 disproven or unsupported therapies for autism that were still in use, and the number has only mushroomed since then. These therapies run the gamut from gluten-free and casein-free diets, anti-fungal treatments, Pepcid, testosterone and secretin to dolphin-assisted therapy, magnetic shoe inserts, hypnosis, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, sheep stem cell injections, trampoline therapy…and on and on.
Debunking another fad treatment – facilitated communication
Despite the prevalence of these fad therapies, relatively few scientists who study autism have raised their voices to rebuke these methods. Perhaps that is because most do not regard public outreach as part of their job description.
In a recent article in the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention, my co-authors Julia Marshall, Howard Shane, James Todd and I examined the persistence of facilitated communication, a scientifically discredited autism therapy. The premise of facilitated communication is that autism is primarily a movement disorder, not a mental disorder. As a consequence of supposed motor deficits, individuals with autism cannot articulate words properly, which presumably explains why many are incapable of speech. With the aid of a facilitator who offers gentle support to their arms, previously uncommunicative individuals with autism can supposedly type eloquent sentences and paragraphs.
If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Scores of controlled studies performed soon after the widespread introduction of facilitated communication to the United States in the early 1990s demonstrated that its seeming effectiveness is a mirage. Facilitators are unintentionally directing autistic individuals’ fingers to the desired letters, much as Ouija board players unknowingly direct the planchette to specific letters and numbers.
We found that facilitated communication, despite being debunked by the late 1990s, remains alive and well in much of the autism community. The method continues to be widely practiced in the US and parts of Europe. It’s still publicized in numerous trade and academic books, seminars, workshops and high-profile documentaries.
This revelation has taken many of our academic colleagues by surprise. One told me that earlier this year, he had invoked facilitated communication in a psychology course as a prime example of a fad that had long been consigned to the dustbin of pseudoscientific history. This is a critical point – for scientists these matters are settled. But that doesn’t mean the information in studies disproving claims from fad therapies has hit the mainstream.