Why is there so much misinformation about autism?
Why is autism such a magnet for fads? And why have discredited ideas endured in the face of contrary evidence? Several likely culprits conspire to create a “perfect storm” making those desperate for a cure or an effective treatment receptive to misinformation.
In the case of the autism-vaccine link, the soaring increase in autism diagnoses over the past two decades is certainly a contributor. But there is growing evidence that much of this spike reflects two factors: increasingly lax criteria for autism diagnosis across successive editions of the official psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM), and heightened incentives for school districts to report autism and other developmental disabilities.
There is therefore ample reason to doubt that the “autism epidemic” actually reflects a genuine increase in the frequency of the condition. But the dramatic rise in diagnoses has led many people to believe in shadowy causal agents, such as childhood vaccinations.
The fact that the symptoms of autism typically become evident at about age two, soon after routine vaccinations begin, lends this belief further surface plausibility. The link in timing is coincidental, but some people connect the dots into a tidy causal narrative.
And many fad treatments for autism are surely born of desperation. There are no known cures for the condition. It’s not surprising that most parents of children with autism simultaneously seek out four to six different treatments for their children. Nor it is surprising that this field has been remarkably fertile ground for ostensible quick fixes, such as facilitated communication.
And some probably fall victim to a diabolical illusion. A number of the behavioral problems associated with autism, such as inattention and anger, often wax and wane over brief periods of time. If a natural – and unrelated – downtick in symptoms happens during or after therapy is delivered, parents and teachers may then conclude that the treatment brought the improvement, even though the decline in symptoms would probably have occurred anyway.
With autism, we sometimes see what we want to see
Appearance shapes how we view autism. Children with autism do not have the distinctive facial markers of, say, children with Down Syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome. That fact might lead some to assume that individuals with autism are cognitively and emotionally normal individuals trapped inside a malfunctioning body. If that is so, all that is presumably required is an intervention, such as facilitated communication, to unlock their unrealized mental potential.
The popularity of autism fads imparts two sobering lessons. First, we can all be misled by the raw data of our sensory impressions. Virtually all autism misconceptions stem largely from what psychologists call naïve realism, the error of placing uncritical trust in our unfiltered observations. Second, scientists need to play a more active role in combating false information about autism and other mental disorders.
When researchers conduct studies that dispel the alleged dangers of vaccines or the alleged effectiveness of pseudoscientific treatments, they may assume that their job is done. That’s not the case. The legacy of autism fads suggests that their real work may have only just begun.
Tristram Smith’s study “Empirically supported and unsupported treatments for autism spectrum disorders” appeared in the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 2008; 6:3–21.