ECEC professionals support research to pave the way to debunk autism myths

by Freya Lucas

February 06

A study led by Griffith University has found that misinformation about which autism interventions are most effective is an ongoing challenge for health practitioners, with researchers recruiting members of the early childhood education and care (ECEC) profession to support them in “de-bunking” autism treatment myths, and reducing support for practices 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 says autism intervention is an area highly susceptible to misinformation.

 

There are many practices available to children and families living with autism, Dr Paynter says, which have “no scientific evidence or even evidence of harm. Often these practices and services are aggressively marketed using emotional appeals, anecdotes and celebrity endorsements’’.

 

Parents presenting to health care professionals with misinformation, or treatment practices which have no scientific grounding, may lead to a delay in working with children experiencing autism spectrum disorder, where early intervention has been shown to be critical.

 

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, participants 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.

 

Dr Paynter’s team found that a general approach where corrections to misinformation were not just communicated, but that they were communicated in such a way as to explain not just “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, Dr Paynter said, “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 ECEC educators 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.

 

The research can be accessed here.

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