Sunday, June 04, 2006

A Researcher's Dose of Reality for Parents of Autistic Kids

In a Q&A in the May 24 San Diego Union Tribune, psychologist and autism researcher Laura Schreibman notes that there's been an explosion of media coverage and Internet-based information about autism spectrum disorders. "More people are aware," she says, adding "There's been a tremendous emphasis in government and other agencies to promote research. Organizations, primarily parent-started, are flourishing and providing their own funding for science."

Science is where Schreibman lives as a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego and leader of the school's autism research program. The explosion of information inspired her to publish a new book recently called The Science and Fiction of Autism (Harvard University Press, 2005). In the book, according to her interview and its online description, she seeks to bust the hype about autism "cures" and other controversies, including allegations that vaccinations cause the disorder.

In the newspaper interview, Schreibman was asked what advice she has for parents of children diagnosed with autism. Her answer:

"Be careful about what you read and hear. There's so much information out there, particularly on the Internet. You need to stick with reputable, specific sites, like the Autism Society of America. Parents get inundated with stories, tales of what vaccines or vitamins do or don't do. They need to be realistic. There is no cure, but there are behavioral treatments that have been shown to be effective in improving the condition.

"When parents talk to people, when they're evaluating services, it doesn't matter so much what helped another child. They need to ask, 'What is the scientific basis for the validity of this treatment?' If something sounds too good to be true, I'm sure it is. If somebody promises too much, grab your wallet and run.

"Once in treatment, keep monitoring. If you're not seeing any change, ask questions. Be watchful and critical. Nobody should be afraid to say this treatment isn't working. Autism isn't a disorder where parents can sit back and hope things will just get better or that the professionals will do it by themselves."

If Schreibman sounds blunt, I took it that she meant it that way. She does also note that she's hopeful that researchers can determine the basis or causes of the many subgroups on the autism spectrum. "I am optimistic that some day, but not in the near future, we'll untangle this mess," she adds. "But any cure is way, way off."

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