How do we evaluate the claims of these products and prevent ourselves from (1) wasting precious financial resources, and (2) putting our precious children in harm's way? There are some key things that one can look for that indicate woo and pseudoscience. We don't have to be experts in a field; we just have to know how to evaluate claims and evidence.The post continues with six tips on how to avoid bad treatments, aka "woo". The tips start out with phrases to look out for such as "Natural", "Organic", and "Doctor recommended", continue on with an admonition about discounting testimonials, anecdotes, guided questionnaires, and illegitimate published articles, before finally ending with the suggestion that only people with an appropriate pedigrees can make a good product.
While I do agree with the overall theme of the post - that it is hard to determine whether a particular treatment is worth it - I have to disagree with the idea that all you need is a cheat sheet of things to avoid.
As anyone who has seriously looked into treating autism can tell you, it can be difficult to determine whether any treatment - mainstream or alternative - will be able to deliver on its promises. And, even when you can establish that a treatment can work, it is still very difficult to know whether a specific treatment will work for a specific person with autism. Take a well-supported, mainstream treatment like ABA - for some children it can do wonders and give them back their ability to function while others won't respond to it at all.
The problem is that, because so little is known about what autism is or what causes it, it is hard to know what exactly what will help in general let alone what will help a specific person.
In general, science understands very little about autism and, specifically, has no clue why some things will work for one person but not another. "Woo" or "pseudoscience" has nothing to do with it.
Although, I have to say, I strongly dislike the idea of "woo". Science is about the open exchange of ideas and is a methodology for trying to understand the world. There is absolutely nothing about science that proclaims that the current understanding is "The Truth" and everything else is wrong. If anything, the idea of "we know that isn't true" is almost the opposite of what science is about. Science is more "we think this might be the case" but is willing to quickly change its mind if some new bit of evidence comes along.
Sure you will find people who cling onto an idea long past the point that there is any evidence supporting it, but that problem applies equally to those who think that they know what "Science Says". As soon as you get too attached to the idea that you know something and consider the "other side" to be the great unwashed who worships woo, you have missed the entire point. You have become the problem rather than the solution.
Arrogance is the antithesis of science.
So, rather than labeling something as "woo" simply on the basis of required legal disclaimers and marketing terms, I would suggest putting down the woo detector and using your head instead. It is possible to develop a general understanding of a subject area without having to spend years and years becoming an expert.
It is important to develop this general understanding because, most of the time, the responsibility for treating a child's autism is left up to the parents. Sure, in a perfect world you would have an expert medical team on your side that can evaluate your child's specific situation and come up with an appropriate care plan. But the chances of that happening are remote.
The majority of time, parents are left on their own and have to sort through a large set of possible treatments and decide what is appropriate with very little guidance from medical "experts".
So, if you are a parent and want to treat your child's autism, you are going to have to develop at least a basic understanding of what it is that you are doing. You will have to have a way to determine what is an appropriate thing to try and what is not.
I personally find it helpful to find out the answers to the following questions whenever I run across some new treatment option -
1. What exactly is the treatment?
2. What is it supposed to do?
3. How is it supposed to work?
4. Do other independent and reputable sources agree?
And then look at the specific reasons for trying this treatment with this child -
5. What specific problem am I trying to address?
6. Why do I think that this treatment will help with this problem?
Before finally getting to the problem of reputation -
7. Do I trust this specific company or entity to provide this treatment?
If I don't know or am uncomfortable with any of the answers to the questions then I would not try the treatment.
This list of questions doesn't just apply to those "woo" treatment like vitamins and probiotics but rather to any treatment that you are thinking of trying. You need to take the time to understand what it is any why you would want to do it because it is unlikely that anyone is going to do it for you.