Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Danger of Anecdotal Experience

Last night, I happened to be awake late enough to watch the news show, Nightline. One segment of the program highlighted a program that takes autistic individuals, primarily children, surfing.

What I found bizarre, is that this surfing program, no matter how well intentioned, was developed after one father (a professional surfer) found that taking his autistic son surfing, helped calm the boy down. Now this man and his wife have devoted their lives to running an all-volunteer assisted surfing program. All on the strength of his belief and personal experience.

In the segment, Nightline showed screaming children in life jackets being carried out into the waves by volunteers. The parents stood on the shore and watched through binoculars. Although they reported the children involved were all happy and relaxed after their surfing experiences, the one child they did follow closely through the segment, when asked if he would go out surfing again, threw himself in his mother's arms and begged to be taken back to their hotel.

The program director appears to believe passionately in the power of the surf to calm autistic children. I can't fault his intentions. Finding activities that help regulate anxiety and increase calm is a good thing. Is surfing the answer? A more fair question might be: is surfing *an* answer? Probably for *some* individuals. What I fault is that this is another example of the 'it worked for my child, lets do it with everyone' mentality.

Anecdotal experience is not scientific evidence.

And I worry about a belief that the outcome justifies the process.

From an autistic child's perspective, I could imagine how frightening the morning must have been. A crowded, unfamiliar environment, an uncomfortable life vest, the potential sensory assault of beach sand, the sound of the waves, physical contact by strangers, forced separation from parents/caregivers, immersion in roiling water.

Does the fact that some of the children were calm and relaxed when it was over mean it was the right thing to do?