Making sense on treatment choices

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Hundreds of interventions are available for kids with communication, learning, attention, social, memory and/or behaviour difficulties. Some are also used to hot-house these skills in typical kids.

Sorting effective interventions from snake oil can be tricky enough for professionals, but a minefield for parents.

Testimonials are much easier to understand than research data. Confident sweeping statements by charismatic sales-folk with magnificent hair seem more persuasive than the usually tentative-sounding statements of scientists. The promise of a miracle cure sounds more appealing than a proposal to work hard for years building skills.

To add to the complexity, professionals who should know better sometimes promote treatments lacking good evidence, or fail to speak up when colleagues do. Respectfully challenging a colleague can be difficult.

Those promoting questionable interventions sometimes make legal or other threats when publicly challenged, which can also have a silencing effect. Silence is easily misinterpreted as agreement.

Hooray, therefore, for Pamela Snow and Caroline Bowen’s important book, “Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals”. Here’s a picture:

Pam and Caroline have long helped lead and inspire Australian Speech Pathologists and related professionals, and readers of this blog might also read Pam’s The Snow Report. I had put in an advance order for their book long before being asked to review it, and writing a review was always the plan, so I was pleased to agree and accept a review copy (sorry getting it actually done has taken so long, Pam!).

A major strength of this book is its understanding that both the brain and the heart are involved in decision-making about how to best help kids with special needs. Understanding and empathy are as necessary as clinical experience and research knowledge to making good decisions. Lack of understanding and empathy can help drive the market for non-evidence-based interventions.

It’s never patronising or superior, but this book has many entertaining moments as it takes us on a tour of the world of infant hot-housing, made-up conditions (Gameboy Disease!), pseudoscience and neuro-flapdoodle, as well as “could try harder” interventions and those based on solid evidence.

To give you an idea of the terrain the book covers, the 12 chapter titles are:

  1. Goldfields and minefields
  2. The baby business: accelerating typical development
  3. Executive control, attention and working memory
  4. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
  5. Behaving, feeling and getting along with others
  6. Augmentative and Alternative Communication: controversies, contradictions and change
  7. Voice, language, speech and fluency
  8. Auditory processing and learning
  9. Reading
  10. Diets, supplements, and nutrition: what’s on the menu?
  11. Parents navigating the marketplace
  12. Treatment choices in everyday practice

I’ll focus now on Chapter 9, as it’s most relevant to readers of this blog, but the other chapters are organised similarly, starting with general principles and then working through key issues and common interventions.

Example chapter: Reading

We start with the big picture: reading consists of two key skill-sets: decoding and comprehension. Decoding is how we get words off the page, so that we can use the same language comprehension skills used for listening to understand their meaning. While English sound-letter relationships are complex, there are strong patterns, and only about 4% of words are truly irregular.

Reading interventions with the best evidence systematically teach awareness of sounds in words (phonemic awareness), spelling patterns (phonics), vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. Interventions based on the (false) idea that reading is a skill that develops naturally typically lack adequate focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.

Children are often asked to visually memorise lists of high-frequency words, but this is not an efficient use of their time or mental resources. The debate surrounding the use of the term “dyslexia” is summarised and the authors conclude that struggling readers need early, effective intervention, whether they have a formal dyslexia diagnosis or not.

Both authors have worked in both health and education, so are able to compare prevailing attitudes to research findings in these sectors, concluding that “we can reasonably expect that there is an evidence-informed line of thinking behind decisions about our healthcare”, but that “a worrying degree of debate persists in education circles about the extent to which teaching should be informed by empirically-derived principles”.

They discuss the evidence available for a number of popularly-adopted programmes: Reading Recovery™, the Arrowsmith Program™, Cellfield™, Fast ForWord®, Interactive Metronome™ and Coloured Lenses/”Irlen® Syndrome” as well as Behavioural Optometry approaches more generally. All are found to lack convincing evidence, you’ll have to read the book for the details.

Orton-Gillingham approaches like Spalding/the Writing Road to Reading and Alphabetic Phonics are described as having many features that align with the current research, particularly in linking language and literacy, using systematic synthetic phonics and teaching about word structure and derivation. However, they may over-emphasise teaching phonics rules, and “multisensory” activities used in these programs like writing letters on a roughened surface and forming letter shapes with one’s body lack good evidence. As Orton-Gillingham is actually multiple different programs, its evidence-base is thus described as equivocal.

Lindamood-Bell® programs like the ADD or LiPS® program and the Seeing Stars® program are also described as containing many sensible, evidence-based components, but again including non-evidence-based “multisensory” activities. Some of the theoretical explanations for reading difficulties used in Lindamood-Bell programs (e.g. weak symbol imagery and/or weak concept imagery) are also unique to these programs, not derived from cognitive science research.

Warning signs that a program is probably not evidence-based include: testimonials and stories about personal experience used in marketing; “neuro/brain-based” language; symbols like ™, ® or © in the program name; and/or claims it is effective for a wide range of difficulties; but a notable lack of information about where to find research supporting these claims  published in peer-reviewed, reputable journals.

Bowen and Snow say the program Toe By Toe appears to apply evidence-based principles, but again include a “multisensory” caveat. They endorse the MultiLit program and associated MiniLit, InitialLit and MacquLit programs as being based on sound, readily-accessible evidence.

In general, they advise working directly on skills that have been assessed as areas of difficulty, e.g. phonics and handwriting if decoding and spelling are the main areas of difficulty; comprehension if this is the main area in which a child is struggling. Not spinal manipulation, special diets, balancing on one leg, memorising clock faces or anything other than actual reading or spelling.

Levels of evidence

Gold standard research is difficult and expensive to do, so it’s not surprising there are many widely-used interventions which Bowen and Snow say “could try harder”  in the research department. I draw on some of them myself – PECS, Social Stories, TEACCH and Hanen – when working with children on the Autism Spectrum. This book made me even more conscious of the need to keep checking for new evidence and better approaches, and wish it were easier for clinicians to access journals, and to incorporate research into clinical practice.

I’d never heard of many of the 170-odd (some odder than others) interventions listed on their “No Convincing Evidence” list on p339, but what a terrifically handy reference list to have! Thank goodness nothing I use appears on it, though I have used Fast ForWord™ with children with low receptive language skills, initially when it was being researched at our Royal Children’s Hospital, and well before it started being marketed for a vast range of difficulties.

The book points out that many things on their No Convincing Evidence list have a firm foothold in mainstream clinical practice and education. As well as things I’d never heard of (Bleach therapy. Chirophonetics. Defeat Autism Now Diet. GemIIni. Opioid Excess Theory. Psychological Astrology. The Children of the Rainbow. WeeHands. Where do they get these names?!), and the reading interventions listed above, the list includes Auditory Integration Treatments, Balanced Literacy, Brain Gym®, Chiropractic, the Davis Dyslexia Program, Dyslexie, Facilitated Communication, Homeopathy, Irlen® lenses, Kinesiology, Learning Styles Theory, Multi-Cueing (AKA Searchlights), Multiple Intelligences, Naturopathy, Osteopathy, Psychodynamic Intervention for ASD, Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), Sensory Diets, Sensory Integration Therapy, Sensory Rooms, Supported Typing, Switch On Reading, TalkTools® for SSD, The Listening Program®, the Three-Cuing System, Whole Brain Learning, Whole Brain/Brain-Based Teaching and Whole Language.

I was a little surprised to find the Wilson Reading System® on this list, I must ask them about that, and very disappointed not to find camel’s milk as a cure for Autism. I guess they had to draw the too-obviously-silly line somewhere.

This book should be made available to parents of children with developmental disorders via public libraries, as it has the potential to save them a lot of grief, time and money finding effective interventions, and avoiding ineffective ones.

It would also be a valuable addition to paediatric and allied health professional libraries, and to the libraries of schools educating children with developmental disorders, which means most schools, I suppose.

In Australia, this book is available from Sandpiper Publications.


13 responses to “Making sense on treatment choices”

  1. Orton Gillingham saved many many lives-see Judith Birsh book-Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills
    See Shaywitz-Overcoming Dyslexia-
    Treated 150 students in my own clinic with it-add Kilpatrick`s work to O.G.
    Wilson should be on “good guy list even though it competes with my program,Remediation Plus

    • alison says:

      Hi Joanne, yes, I think there is a lot to be said for Orton-Gillingham approaches though I prefer to work in the sound to letter direction rather than from letter to sound, and I also think people should skip the learning-masses-of-rules-that-aren’t-terribly-reliable or easy for kids to understand, and also the writing in sand and shaving cream. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good, OG is definitely on the good side of the fence. I’m still getting my head around Kilpatrick’s program, and how it fits with other things based on good evidence, as I don’t like missing the opportunity to work on letters with sounds, but “pure” phonemic awareness tasks do seem to be useful for some kids. I’m still trying to work out which ones exactly.

  2. Oh,he advocates for graphemes and phonemes and a lot of segmenting,isolating,deleting and substitution to make new words.Great book.
    Thanks for your reply.
    We use rice trays for the feel,mirrors for audit discrim and magnets for phoneme segmentation and sequencing,stickies sort of like you for moving them around..
    I just love your site,thanks.
    I have been at it a long time,have seen some results in the field but they are so hard to come by.
    You`re fun to watch,the lipstick one is a favourite as was the Leveled Literacy one..ha ha!

  3. Tim Leahy says:

    Alison, I have read the book (admittedly only once, and at least one week ago) but I was left more convinced of what doesn’t work but left a little hazy about what does. This book is very good on what not to do. Perhaps a bit broad brush stroke at times. Eg including Triple P in “could try harder” is a bit tough given Triple P is regarded as strongly evidenced based for some areas (see the kidsmatter website and other clearinghouse websites), and can be used in several different settings. So which Triple P research are we talking about?
    I guess the DSF publication Understanding Learning Difficulties would be better if you want to find out what teachers should be doing. And for lots of detail, better to go the Handbook of Australian School Psychology, which has extensive chapters on all the main learning disorders and many of the emotional issues too.
    What does seem clear to me is that the main interventions for many learning difficulties are educational interventions delivered in schools. I’m not sure what the authors had to say about explicit instruction or response to intervention but would regard these as important questions, and from my reading, essential.
    What the book does achieve is some more discussion on why it seems so difficult to get evidence based discussion of education interventions. I am still left wanting more on this topic. Perhaps you have other suggestions, links or ideas on this topic? I wonder if part of the problem is that the science of learning (see PEN principles – ) and research base of learning and teaching is a relatively new concept for many (including teachers). Education is only just beginning to make transparent its evidence base (see Visible learning, Evidence for learning websites) but practically doesn’t involve parents or citizens in discussions, unless part of the school board discussion, and then only in a cursory way, a few times per year. Education institutions in Australia rarely seem to make the evidence clear to the public, then hold themselves accountable to the evidence. LDA and Dyslexia associations would be exceptions to this.
    I would be interested in your thoughts.

    • alison says:

      Hi Tim, sorry to take ages to respond, I started but then got sidetracked I think, sigh. I agree that the book sets a very high bar regarding what is evidence-based, and there are not a lot of things that can really clear that bar, but I guess their point is that we do need to get serious about research in all the professions that profess to be evidence-based, rather than waiting for other people off in under-funded universities to do the research for us (but who has time??!!). The AUSPELD Understanding Learning Difficulties books are really great, and how amazing that all the parent stuff is now free online. I think what David Kilpatrick says about RTI (that the format but not the content of RTI was adopted, and it doesn’t work without content) rings pretty true to me, though often even the use of the format can seem a little ad hoc at least in my local schools. I also think that the argument about there being a culture clash between science and education that Seidenberg makes is very true, and in the mainstream of society we still have very little understanding of the scientific method. I’ve just been having a big debate on my personal facebook page with friends about the recent cut to private health subsidies for things like homoeopathy and naturopathy and yoga. Lots of people criticising me for being too western-medicine-centric, but they haven’t had clients tell them that they are ditching their language therapy or independent communication aids for camel’s milk or facilitated communication, or some other remedy with no proper evidence that doesn’t even have a proper theoretical basis, let alone an RCT. Not that a lot of what speech pathologists do has RCT support either, but at least science is the framework in which we must operate. I sometimes feel as though anyone with charisma and magnificent hair who shows up in education can market anything, regardless of its limited relation to established theories, and regardless of no research evidence whatsoever. Sigh. Even the idea of “what works” gets called logical positivist names, there isn’t really agreement about what reading is, so many people think decoding is irrelevant and it’s all about meaning. This is very confusing and annoying to those of us who work day in day out with kids who can’t decode. Not sure if those were interesting thoughts or not. All the best, Alison

  4. Annette says:

    Who is the author of this article? Thanks

  5. Sheri says:

    Sorry for pulling up an old thread, but it’s just where my head is at. Interested in the high rating of MultiLit and less evidence of OG in this great book. Just wondering if that’s evidence for teaching reading and writing? In MultiLit I see a lot of reading focus, so just wasn’t sure whether evidence extends across both domains… (will follow up the lit)

    • alison says:

      Hi Sheridan, I’m not the author of this book so if you want to ask either of them, they can be contacted via their blogs: and However I think that Orton-Gillingham is more of a Thing in the US than it is here in Australia (I’m not sure where you are), and my understanding is that while there are programs that have OG in their name, the OG umbrella essentially encompasses traditional, intensive phonics programs, which David Kilpatrick says build decoding and spelling skills but don’t target phonemic proficiency and thus only help the kids with the mild phonological core deficit to catch up to peers in reading. The more severe kids don’t learn to orthographically map via OG/traditional phonics because it doesn’t include advanced phonemic awareness and proficiency, so that needs to be added in. Multilit is a good program for getting kids reading but the last time I looked at it in detail I thought it could have more of a spelling focus, which they are bringing in with their newer programs I think, so maybe the latest iteration has more on spelling. Anyway it’s mainly seeking to improve reading and it does have the research runs on the board in doing that. Hope that’s helpful, Alison

  6. […] it’s a language-based problem. Like many others, I’ve said this before (here, here, here, here, here, and here) but the zombie idea of ‘visual dyslexia’ still seems to be […]

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