Addressing the Spread of Misinformation about Autism & Evidence-Based Practices

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway:

The spread of misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has rapidly increased amongst the general public in recent years. Special education professionals are expected to have expertise in the use of evidence-based practices (EBPs) to best meet the needs of students with autism and are trusted by caregivers to provide this support. By preparing professionals to be critical of information about ASD and effective practices, we can address and mitigate the spread of misinformation. —Taryn McBrayne

Evidence-Based Practices and Autism in the Classroom

With an increase in public awareness campaigns hitting social media platforms, misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely increased over the past decade. In fact, research suggests that “the general public is more familiar with unsubstantiated practices for ASD than with evidence-based practices (EBPs).” The psychological phenomenon, “the mere-exposure effect,” proposes that even reading one inaccurate headline can have a long-lasting impact on the way that one thinks about certain topics, including Autism.4 Thus, authors Fleury & Kemper seek to examine education professionals’ knowledge about ASD and treatment options to assess how the dissemination of misinformation may have influenced ASD practices. 

As with all educators, special educators have a responsibility to make instructional decisions that will best serve the needs of their students. The use of EBPs is often  “emphasized in most states’ teaching licensure standards.” However, recent research has shown that only “12% to 55% of education professionals serving students with ASD were directly taught how to use EBPs for students with ASD during their preservice training.”2 Therefore, educators may resort to alternative forms of information, increasing the chance that non-EBPs will be used in the classroom given that “autism remains a ‘fad magnet,’”3 potentially causing harm to the individual with ASD as well as the organizations that do promote EBPs. 

Fleury & Kemper also emphasize that “the public’s general misunderstanding of correlation versus causation”1 combined with difficulties distinguishing between credible and non-credible sources, creates an environment where misinformation can be easily spread and given credence. 

In their study, the authors surveyed 72 education professionals from a 2-day professional development seminar. The results are as follows: 

Beliefs about Causal Attributes of ASD

Familiarity with Practices 

Likelihood to Use or Recommend Practices 

The authors acknowledge that ​​the participants in this study were already “attending a professional development training and, as such, represent a biased sample of professionals who are interested in expanding their knowledge and expertise about EBPs for this population.” Therefore, a wider research sample is needed in order to apply these findings to the general special educator population. 

Overall, Fleury & Kemper note that while the results of this survey are encouraging, it is important to continue efforts to combat the spread of misinformation about ASD and EBPs by cross-checking information with reputable sources, addressing deficits in knowledge, and working towards publishing research in a manner that is easily accessible for a general population. Ultimately, “by preparing professionals to be critical consumers of information, we may be able to mitigate the spread of misinformation about autism and limit widespread use of non-EBPs.”

Summarized Article:

Fleury, V. P., & Kemper, T. (2022). An Examination of Education Professionals’ Beliefs About Causes of Autism and Their Perceptions of Practices. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.

Summary by: Taryn McBrayne — Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

  1. Bergstrom, C. T., & West, J. D. (2020). Calling bullshit: The art of skepticism in a data driven world. Random House.
  2. Hsiao, Y. J., & Petersen, S. (2018). Evidence-based practices provided in teacher education and in-service training programs for special education teachers of students with autism spectrum disorders. Teacher Education and Special Education, 42, 193–208.
  3. Metz, B., Mulik, J. A., & Butter, E. M. (2016). Autism: A twenty-first century fad magnet. In R. M. Foxx & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Controversial therapies for autism and intellectual disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 169–195). Routledge.
  4. Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1865–1880.

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