Whether you are an individual with autism or a parent to a loved one with an autism spectrum disorder, you may want to stay informed about scientific research related to ASD. You can find information on the internet and other media channels, but how accurate is that information? Knowing how to understand scientific research studies can help you find reliable and relevant information. 

This article is a tool to help you assess information about autism based on scientific principles. As you put these recommendations into practice, remember to use critical thinking and common sense when assessing any claim about autism. Combining an understanding of scientific research studies with your own powers of reasoning can help you: 

  • Make evidence-based decisions
  • Understand recommendations from your care team and discuss them knowledgeably
  • Minimize overwhelm
  • Advocate for yourself or your family member with autism. 
Understanding Scientific Research About Autism

Good autism research – like all medical research – meets three criteria: It is based on scientific principles and procedures, it has been peer-reviewed, and the study is able to be replicated. We’ll explore each of these criteria in more detail below.

Special thanks to Anissa Ryland and the staff of The Johnson Center for Child Health and Development for helping to develop some of the guidelines and information included in this article. 

What is a peer-reviewed study?

Peer-review is a process that academic journals use to understand if the studies they publish are based on good research. Before including a study in their publication, the journal sends the research out to other experts in the field. 

Experts who were not involved in the original study check that the study design applies scientific principles and procedures. They also use their own knowledge of the subject to determine whether the results and conclusions make sense based on available data. The editor of the journal takes their recommendations into account when deciding whether to publish the study. 

Some scientific journals have been in print longer than others or are more respected in their field. Readers can use a metric called an impact factor to decide if the journal that printed a particular study is a reliable source of information. The Impact factor is the total number of times articles from that journal were cited, divided by the total number of citable articles in that journal during that span of time. 

The impact factors of various journals are calculated and printed yearly in Journal Citation Reports. You can find the current impact factor of most journals with a quick web search. Keep in mind that a journal must exist for at least two years before its impact factor can be calculated. 

Where to find research

Many groups, organizations, and individuals write about autism. Whenever you come across a new treatment or new information about autism, you can check the validity by seeking out original sources. 

Places to find original sources: 

Some of these research aggregation services are free, others cost money. For paid services, check with your local library to see if they can connect you with a free account. You can also ask your clinician to provide you with research related to specific treatments, comorbidities, and symptoms

Types of studies

You may come across several different types of studies as you read and learn about autism. Each study type can be used to investigate topics related to autism, but some have a wider application than others. Get to know the different study types so you can think critically about how the research applies to you or your child with autism. 

  • Animal and Cell Studies – Observe and test animals or cell cultures. These types of studies provide initial insight, but the application to humans may not be clear. 
  • Case Reports – A written record on a single subject. Each case study represents an individual experience. This can be a starting point for research. It does not prove that what worked for one individual will work for others. 
  • Case Series – A group of case reports that track multiple subjects. Remember that correlation is not causation