Fad Treatments Making Good Choices for Your Child
Each year, people gather all over for conferences and conventions focused on supporting people with special needs. These events offer opportunities to connect with others facing similar issues and showcase sponsors of the latest trends in intervention. Vendors set up booth after booth, displaying different treatments and methods. The treatments available offer a wide range of evidence to support their effectiveness and can come at a heavy cost.
At one such convention, parents could be overheard discussing one of the treatments being offered. Apart from all the benefits advertised in the vendor’s testimonial of the “cutting-edge treatment” and “breakthrough at the intersection of medicine and technology”, they were offering a special “discount” for anyone who provided a down payment during the convention. Believing the claims, the parents were feeling desperate to enroll in what they saw as a godsend to their children, but realized that they would have to go to great lengths to pay for it, even if it meant applying for a second mortgage on their house. So, how do we decide if the treatment is worth the cost?
Costs of Fad Treatments
For a typical family, the costs of treatment can be overwhelming. In addition to the possible financial tolls, children and families may have to dedicate extensive time to the treatment and it may create a good bit of emotional strain on all involved. This is particularly true if the treatment turns out to be ineffective in the end. Hope is created, and then dashed. Sometimes this can happen over and over, as parents strive to do everything they can for their children, long after being tapped out: financially, physically, and mentally. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the direct effects on the children receiving the treatments. If the treatment is intrusive and ineffective, there is an opportunity loss as the children fail to thrive in treatment. Worst case, the children may become victims of treatments that are actually dangerous. See video Miracle Mineral Solution is an example of the dangers of fads.
This video about Miracle Mineral Solution is an example of the dangers of fads
Recognizing Fad Treatments
So, what are fad treatments? They come in waves, touting miraculous effects until they are eventually debunked, only to be replaced by the next new thing – another drop in the bucket in a sea of interventions. How do we recognize fad treatments? They are often highly publicized, offered by people with limited or questionable credentials, make overreaching claims of effectiveness (even cures), and create pressure campaigns, including deals for reduced costs. They typically have little or no scientific research to support their use, relying almost exclusively on testimonials. These red flags, however, may be ignored as parents latch onto these opportunities, desperate to help their children.
There are numerous treatments that lack evidence of their effectiveness. They include dietary supplements and modifications, medical procedures, and a wide range of therapies that lack theoretical and practical grounding. Below you will find sites that provide lists of treatments that currently lack scientific support (focusing on children with autism, in particular):
Making the Right Decisions
So, how do we know if a treatment is really going to be effective or just another fad? First, it is important to understand what we mean by “evidence-based”. Evidence means that the treatment has a strong theoretical foundation (i.e., based in behavioral or medical science) and has been subjected to numerous highly-controlled studies – much like what the FDA does before releasing a drug. Treatments are tested for certain conditions and populations, creating a mound of evidence to support them. Not all potentially good treatments have this level of scientific support in the beginning. There are some, what we call “emerging” practices, that have some good preliminary research and just make sense. They may include providing items or activities that are soothing or have reinforcing qualities, such as sensory tools (e.g., weighted blankets) or experiences with animals. These are worth trying, provided you evaluate their effects as you go. This distinction is crucially important and should be discussed more often, as more and more options are becoming available at our disposal.
Fad treatments that have clearly been debunked, by contrast, have either no studies or poorly designed studies to support them. They are mostly supported by opinion.
The following article may be helpful in making decisions:
Questions to Ask
To decide if a treatment is right for your child, ask yourself the following questions:
Does this make sense for my child? Is the treatment aligned with your child’s medical and behavioral characteristics, history of learning and development, and preferences? What are the potential risks? Given all of this, is it a good fit?
What is the evidence of its effectiveness? Using the CDC website or other reputable sources (e.g., “.org” sites, input from respected professionals), what is the evidence? Have there been multiple studies with children like your own, just a handful, or none? If there is limited evidence, treat lightly into those waters.
Is this doable for my child and family? How much will the treatment cost? How much time will it take and how will that impact my family? Given the potential benefit (based on the two previous questions), is it worth it? It is okay to say no.
If I try it, is it clearly effective? Does the therapy result in observable changes in my child’s behavior or condition? Are they developing new skills or better able to adapt to situations? Are they healthier? It is important to start any new treatment with a healthy level of skepticism. To learn more about how to determine if an approach is working, go to: Is it working?
As a parent, you want the best for your children. When your children are struggling, it is only natural to become desperate for solutions. Unfortunately, opportunists take advantage of this. It is important to take a step back and assess treatments before making commitments, trusting both your intelligence and gut since you know what is best for your children and family. Behavior analysts and other therapists must only recommend interventions with a strong research base, but can certainly help you make informed decisions and evaluate whether the interventions are effective.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2020 Magazine