Autism treatments need proof

18 November, 2010

One of the country's leading education specialists in the treatment of autism says many current treatments are unproven, and may actually be harming children.

Prof Jeff Sigafoos, from Victoria University's Faculty of Education says without a more evidence-based approach to education, autistic children are potentially at risk.

"Autism is an area where there happens to be a lot of misuse of evidence, controversy about what works for children and what doesn’t, and a lot of unproven, ineffective and potentially harmful things being done in the name of educating children."

In his inaugural lecture on 23 November, Prof Sigafoos will cover the life and work of several major figures who influenced the understanding of autism and the education and treatment of children with autism, and put forward a case for transforming education into a more evidence-based profession.

Autism affects one in every 150 children. Most of them have difficulty communicating and around 50 per cent fail to develop speech at all.

Prof  Sigafoos says his own research shows that many parents are using unproven and potentially harmful treatments. In a study of the kind of treatments being used by 552 parents for children with autism, he found 108 different treatments being used.

"Only five or six of those treatments were evidence based - so that means there are about 100 or so unproven treatments being used by parents, and I suspect the same thing would hold if you went into schools. Some of those could be quite harmful or detrimental."

Prof Sigafoos says he is applying the evidence-based approach to his current Marsden funded research on identifying the best communication tools for children with autism, with the aim of reducing some of the behavioural problems associated with the disorder.

"The idea is you do research to try and demonstrate whether a particular procedure or approach is effective, if it looks promising you do additional studies to see whether that promise holds and bears out in different situations and with different types of students for teaching different types of skills."

He says many education policies are based either on ideology, ignorance or advocacy, as opposed to evidence, and will illustrate the point with reference to Texas Governor Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson, who infamously opposed teaching migrant children in their native Spanish by declaring "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ then it’s good enough for the children of migrants".

Victoria Vice-Chancellor Prof Pat Walsh says that Prof Sigafoos is an outstanding teacher and researcher who has applied the study of education to increase our understanding of, and help people with, developmental and physical disabilities.
"Professor Sigafoos' current Marsden research is groundbreaking and aimed at bringing fresh evidence to a topic that is hotly debated internationally. His research is making a real difference to the lives of people affected by autism."
Prof Walsh says Victoria's inaugural lecture series is an opportunity for new, and newly appointed Victoria professors to provide the wider community, along with family, friends and colleagues, an insight into their specialist area of study.
"It is also an opportunity for the University to celebrate and acknowledge our valued professors."

Jeff Sigafoos is a Professor in Victoria’s School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy and an Adjunct Professor at James Madison University in Virginia, USA.