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Controversial Therapies: Why Do Some Unproven Therapies Become Popular?

This article explains the appeal of unproven therapies for learning disabilities -- and warns you what to watch out for.

By Emerson Dickman, Esq.

To be controversial a therapy must have something about it that attracts supporters. I have tried over the years to identify those ingredients that permit some ideas to have a significant number of believers in spite of limited research-based evidence of being meaningful and effective.

  • Guru factor. The proponent of the therapy is knowledgeable, charismatic, and knows your child. He or she offers to assume the parent's burden, clear up the parent's confusion, and assure the parents that they will never have to look back and experience guilt for what could have been.
  • No unexplained failures. The failure of the therapy to achieve expected outcomes is often explained in terms of:
  • The parent misunderstanding the goal of the therapy,
  • The therapy providing the groundwork for future (not immediate) growth,
  • The parent not believing or following through sufficiently for the program to be successful, or
  • The child being lazy and unmotivated. In other words, failure is attributed to influences external to the therapy itself.
  • All forward progress is related to the therapy. Maturization, exposure to other educational opportunities, the suggestive effect of a placebo and the Hawthorne effect are all variables that often result in significant progress unrelated to the therapy.
  • The lack of research-based support is due to professional jealousy. The therapy is said to be so good it threatens a profession, entrenched ideas and theories, and challenges the life's work of many respected leaders in the field. The proponents of the therapy claim to think out of the box and since they challenge the status quo they are rejected by a mainstream that is shackled by old ideas and rigid paradigms. Anyone who stands alone claiming to be better than the group should have a Surgeon General's warning taped to his back.

Reprinted with permission from Emerson Dickman. All rights reserved.