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In Autism Research, Looking Beyond the Headlines

Marina Sarris
September 15, 2014

Picture of newspaperThe headline was, as headlines should be, attention-grabbing: "UC Davis Autism Study: Early Intervention Helped 86% of Toddlers."1

If you kept reading, you would discover researchers launched a study of an early intervention technique that parents could perform with infants and toddlers at risk of autism. Seven babies participated in the study. By age 3, one had severe autism, one had mild autism but no development delays, and five had no developmental problems at all, the article said.

The math of the headline – 86 percent – was spot-on, but when you saw that number, did you assume the study was much larger than it was? Did you think this study was the last word on the subject of early intervention?

The study’s lead author, UC Davis professor Sally Rogers Ph.D., indicated that the study was small and preliminary. "With seven (children) you can’t draw a conclusion," the article quoted her as saying.

A press release from UC Davis also discussed the significance of the study, and its size. "Given the preliminary nature of the findings, the study only suggests that treating these symptoms so early may lessen problems later. Larger, well controlled studies are needed to test the treatment for general use. However, the researchers said that this initial study is significant because of the very young ages of the infants, the number of symptoms and delays they exhibited early in life, the number of comparison groups involved, and because the intervention was low intensity and could be carried out by the parents in everyday routines."2

So it’s important to read beyond the headline. Find out the size of the study, and whether the scientists consider it to be preliminary. What do they say about its significance and whether more research is necessary? Numbers can be helpful, of course, but you need to see what’s behind them.

  1. UC Davis Autism Study: Early Intervention Helped 86% of Toddlers (2014, September 10). CNN Wire. Retrieved from
  2. Intervention in 6-month-olds with autism ameliorates symptoms, alleviates developmental delay. (2014, September 8) UC Davis Health System. Retrieved from