Autism Research Controversy: A Response to Howard et Al.'s (2005) Defenders

Article excerpt

Two years ago Jane Howard and colleagues published their quasi-experimental study "A comparison of intensive behavior analytic and eclectic treatments for young children with autism" (Howard, Sparkman, Cohen, Green, & Stanislaw, 2005). A year later my paper (Schoneberger, 2006)-which, in part, raised some serious questions about the methodology of their study--appeared in this journal. Since it publication, my paper has received a number of positive appraisals--some from local public school employees, some from members of local agencies serving special needs children (e.g., Valley Mountain Regional Center, an agency which played a role in Howard et al.'s research), and some from other professionals across the nation. As an example of the latter, consider the comments of Andy Bondy, a prominent behavior analyst and co-founder of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). With regard to the issue of "how to best describe" Howard et al.'s methodology and results, Bondy found my paper (2006) "astute and helpful" (personal communication, September 27, 2006). However, others have attempted to counter my criticisms. Specifically, this journal recently published two letters to the editor offering spirited defenses of Howard et al. (2005): one by the researchers themselves (Howard, Sparkman, Cohen, Green, & Stanislaw, 2007) and the other by Tristram Smith (2007). Further, this current issue contains a third letter (Wright, 2007) which also offers a defense of Howard et al. In what follows I respond to all three letters, beginning with the more substantive of the three (Smith, 2007), and then concluding with Howard et al. (2007) and Wright (2007).

Response to Smith (2007)

Drawing largely on a paper by Tristram Smith and colleagues (Smith, Groen, & Wynn, 2000), my paper (2007) identified three guidelines to be followed by studies assessing the treatment efficacy of behavior analytic approaches to young children with autism. These guidelines are: "(1) random assignment of participants to treatment conditions; (2) use of uniform assessment protocols across all participants; and (3) documentation of sufficient methodological detail to allow for independent replication" (Schoneberger, 2006, p. 208). Further, in my paper I reported Tristram Smith's (personal communication, July 25, 2005) critical commentary on Howard et al.'s (2005) study; namely, that the study's "limitations" included (a) its use of nonrandom assignment and (b) its providing "limited information about the interventions." The logical implications of Smith's criticisms are that Howard et al. (2005) failed to adhere to the first and third guidelines.

In his letter to the editor defending Howard et al.'s (2005) study, Smith (2007) does not dispute the accuracy of my citations of his personal communication to me. However, Smith (2007) does assert that "this characterization of our correspondence is quite one-sided and misleading" (p.146), apparently because I did not include his favorable comments about Howard et al.'s study that were contained in his personal correspondence to me. Indeed, in my paper I did not report Smith's statement to me that Howard et al.'s study "is a very useful contribution to the literature." Further, I did not include his comments that "the groups appear fairly comparable prior to treatment, and the comprehensive assessments and use of independent examiners are strengths. Also, the results are impressive" (T. Smith, personal communication, July 25, 2005). Thus, to the charge that my characterization of his correspondence was "one-sided" I plead guilty with an explanation. However, I disagree that I was thereby misleading. Consider the following explanations of my "guilty" plea.

In selectively quoting Smith's correspondence with me, I was arguing for a particular point of view. So, of course it was one-sided. Smith's criticizing me for being one-sided is like criticizing a participant in a formal debate for being one-sided. …