Autism Reality

Autism Research Ethics – Is It Ethical to Deny ABA to Autistic Infants for Research Purposes?

The AP is reporting several new autism research projects aimed at studying early clues of autism and other disorders. One such study mentioned is by Dr. Stanley Greenspan which, according to the AP report, will involve two groups of infants – One group will receive intensive behavior training, the other will not; both will be compared through age 5. But is it ethical to deny ABA intervention to infants who are diagnosed or suspected to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder for research purposes?

An opinion peace in the Medical Journal of Australia Children with autism deserve evidence-based intervention The evidence for behavioural therapy MJA Vol 178 5 May 2003 424, Jennifer J Couper Head, Endocrinology and Diabetes Centre, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, North Adelaide, and University of Adelaide, SA and Amanda J Sampson Ultrasonologist Royal Women’s Hospital, Carlton, VIC reviewed the impressive body of research that existed in 2003 in support of the effectiveness of ABA as an autism treatment. The authors noted “that while ineffective therapies may be harmless, they waste parents’ money and the child’s valuable therapy time. Furthermore, the delay in implementing effective treatment may compromise the child’s outcome.“.

Since the MJA editorial piece there have been more studies confirming the efficacy of ABA as an autism intervention or treatment. How can a study which denies ABA treatment to autistic infants during the critical 2-5 year age period meet ethical standards in light of ABA’s demonstrated evidence based effectiveness in treating autism? As Couper and Sampson noted ineffective therapies waste parents’ money and valuable therapy time. Hopefully, at the very least the parents of infants in the control group, the infants not receiving ABA, have been informed that there are literally hundreds of studies demonstrating the effectiveness of ABA as an autism intervention. Hopefully they will have been told before agreeing to deny ABA treatment to their children that state, academic and professional bodies around the world have consistently concluded that ABA stands alone as the most solidly supported, evidence based treatment for autism to this day.


Associated Press
Article Launched: 05/21/2007 01:31:53 AM PDT


Research on identifying early clues of autism and other disorders and testing treatments is booming. Here are some of the doctors and researchers involved:

Dr. Fred Volkmar at Yale University is studying potential ways to diagnose autism in the first months of life, including whether looking at objects rather than people is a sign. “I think we’re on the verge of being able to do a much better job” of diagnosing autism in infancy, Volkmar said.

Researcher Stephen Porges at the University of Illinois at Chicago is starting a five-year study of whether excessive crying past 6 months of age might be an early sign of autism, attention deficit or other behavioral problems.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatry professor at George Washington University, is launching a multimillion-dollar study involving parents and babies at risk for autism or attention deficit disorder. One group will receive intensive behavior training, the other will not; both will be compared through age 5.

May 21, 2007 - Posted by | Amanda J Sampson, Applied Behavior Analysis, autism disorder, autism ethics, autism research, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, evidence based interventions, Jennifer J Couper


  1. Just browsing the internet, very interesting.

    Comment by Freddie Sirmans | May 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. Hi Harold,

    It would be hard to argue that with holding effective intervention can be ethical… IBT has some pretty good supporting literature (more would be better though) so I wonder if there would be a better way to look for a comparision group…

    Do you know how assignment to groups will be conducted? Do they intend to use random assignment tables or if the parents will be allowed to elect “treatment” protocol/groups… which will introduce a confounding variable but might respect parent wishes and values.


    Comment by Anonymous | May 22, 2007 | Reply

  3. I would argue that it is not ethical to not provide a treatment that has support for effectiveness. There are methodological concern however if trials are not randomized. For example, if allowed to choose the method, there may be certain characteristics that parents who are not “drawn” to a behavioral model may have. In that way, we would not be able to identify if it was the family or the intervention that was the source of positive behavior change in the child.

    From a research perspective, this is a way to truly identify ABA as the more effective treatment or not. Studies that have been conducted to date exploring ABA as the most effective treatment (Lovaas, for example, whose study has not been replicated and has several methodological flaws)need additional support.

    But again, it is easy to talk about the design, challenging to address the ethical component. That being said, I would not have my child in the other treatment, nor would I EVER advocate another child be placed into the non-ABA treatment in the interest of science. That speaks to something.

    Comment by Angela Mouzakitis, BCBA | May 24, 2007 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: