Study debunks autism intervention myths

Debunking misinformation about autism interventions is an ongoing challenge for health practitioners.

Now a new study led by Griffith University and published in PLOS Onehas found that optimised-debunking interventions are effective in reducing support for practices that are not backed by research.

Lead author and senior lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology and member of Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Dr Jessica Paynter (pictured left), says autism intervention is an area highly susceptible to misinformation.

“This is due to the plethora of practices available with no scientific evidence or even evidence of harm. These are often aggressively marketed using emotional appeals, anecdotes and celebrity endorsements,’’ she said.

“This can lead to practitioners being confused about the evidence base, however it can be difficult to correct misinformation; corrections can increase belief in the misinformation”

Eighty-six people took part in the study, including early childhood educators, speech pathologists, teachers, occupational therapists, and social workers from four different autism early intervention centres in four Australian states.

In the context of professional development training they were randomly assigned to “optimised debunking” or “treatment-as-usual” training and compared support for practices not backed by research evidence before, after, and six weeks after completion of online training.

“Initial results demonstrated that an optimised-debunking intervention was more effective than existing information sheets at reducing support for practices not backed by research,’’ Dr Paynter said.

“Our general approach was that corrections are more effective if they do not just communicate that a piece of information is false, but also explain why it is false, what led people to believe it in the first place, and provide alternatives explanations or practices.”

“For example, in the case of a person falsely believing in an autism epidemic caused by vaccinations, then it is crucial to refute the misinformation and to provide alternative information to fill the “gap” created by the correction — that the observed rise in autism rates is mostly due to broadened diagnostic criteria and awareness of the condition.”

While short-term results were promising, a six-week follow-up highlighted the need for ongoing supports for teachers and health professionals. The researchers highlight the need for professional development and resources that cover not only what practices to use, but what practices not to use, and why.

“Our approach has potential to serve as a flexible template for both real-world application and future research,’’ Dr Paynter said.