DAILY NEWS CONTRIBUTOR
Monday, March 28, 2016, 6:00 PM
Imagine that your cousin was just diagnosed with cancer. His doctor from a well-respected hospital explained the traditional treatment: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The doctor cannot make any guarantees and explains the negative side effects.
Next, your cousin informs you he will abandon the recommended treatment and go with an alternative form of therapy consisting of drinking purified sheep’s milk, receiving hot stone massages three times per week, and taking a pill made from llama blood cells.
Naturally, you would ask questions:
What is the degree of the professional who is recommending this therapy?
How effective is the treatment likely to be, and what are the side effects?
Why would this type of therapy work to cure the cancer?
How much will it cost?
Your cousin says that the professional asserts the therapy should be 100% effective within two months with monthly follow-up appointments, and that he has never seen anyone who didn’t benefit from the treatment.
There are no side effects, although no published research support the treatment regimen, which costs $ 60,000.
As a bonus, it is effective for a wide range of conditions including diabetes, insomnia and depression, although the treatment is not covered by insurance.
Hmm…doesn’t this seem odd?
What if your cousin went with the alternative therapy for one year without any positive results and now the cancer has spread and is no longer treatable.
Who is responsible? The professional, your cousin, or you, for not saying something when it sounded too good to be true?
Unfortunately, this scenario is an everyday occurrence for families with a child on the autism spectrum. Unscrupulous “professionals” feed on the hopes and dreams of unsuspecting parents who desperately want to help their children by providing the best opportunity for future health and happiness.
Their fame and fortune are based on the idea that parents of children diagnosed with autism can and will spare no expense.
The majority of alternative treatments for autism have no scientific research to support their claims. Many are prescribed and implemented by unlicensed, non-degreed individuals.
Some, such as chelation therapy (cleansing of heavy metals from the blood), and pig secretin hormone treatment have significant risk factors.
Further, treatments such as facilitated communication and hugging therapies, have research support against their effectiveness and have resulted in family disruption and psychological harm.
Many treatments continue to promote a debunked theory that a child turned autistic because of unloving parents and an uncaring world. Diet and sensory treatments continue to be popular despite not having data-based support.
Some therapies, such as rhythmic drumming and drinking camel milk, are just plain bizarre.
Parents, desperate for solutions, continue to subscribe to these miracle cures in place of evidence-based treatment. At the same time, they are negatively effecting the long-term prognosis for their child.
So what is the most effective form of therapy for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum?
The answer is early intensive applied behavior analysis (ABA). Decades of well-conducted, scientific research have shown that when ABA methodology is employed in the teaching of children with autism, they have the best prognosis for the future.
In fact, 30 or more hours per week of one-to-one ABA instruction commencing when the child is first diagnosed (ideally before the age of three) is the treatment empirically supported by the scientific community and endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General.
ABA instruction should be implemented by a well trained professional and overseen by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).
The child’s school program should implement intensive ABA on a full-time basis regardless of the age of the child. In order to generalize success to the home setting, parents should receive training in ABA by a behavior analyst and implement ABA plans in the home and the community.
As a licensed psychologist and behavior analyst with more than 20 years of experience working with children and adults with autism, I have dedicated my career to the application of evidence-based practices. Denying research data, in exchange for unsupported alternative treatments, is professionally irresponsible and unethical.
So the question remains: Who is to blame for allowing children with autism to waste time in ineffective “therapies” for the monetary gain of others?
Obviously, parents made the decisions, and the therapists unethically profit. But what is the responsibility of the community at large?
The mass media, which gains ratings from airing unverified stories of miracle cases through the use of “cutting edge” but false treatments?
Celebrities and politicians who gain recognition by speaking on subjects they know little about, but feel the timing is right to jump on the autism band wagon?
State governments that allow unlicensed individuals or professionals licensed in other disciplines to implement unregulated treatments without any oversight?
State education departments for not providing appropriate, evidence-based services to children with special needs, as is required by law?
Professionals and associations for not speaking out against inappropriate and ineffective treatments?
The general public — all of us — for suspending all logic when it comes to accepting alternative treatments for autism that make no intuitive sense?
The short answer is: All of the above.
The best prognosis is for parents to get their children assessed for the possibility of autism as soon as any signs of developmental issues are observed. Once a diagnosis is received, children should receive close to 30 hours per week of intensive ABA with programing overseen by a board certified behavior analyst.
Parents should realize that not all professionals are advertising credible treatments and that they should personally investigate all treatment options before deciding on an action plan for their child.
The most important thing is to let logic dictate the course of action. We would never let a loved one substitute candle therapies and camel milk for traditional cancer treatments.
We must not allow wacky and often counterproductive treatments for autism to thrive.
Dr. Frank Cicero is the Director of Education at Comprehensive Kids Developmental School and President of the Board of the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis.
[The content provided through this article and www.nydailynews.com should be used for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the advice of a relevant professional with any questions about any health decision you are seeking to make.]
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