Reporting on an alternative treatment for autism is always risky–the condition is disabling, the science poor, the anecdotes powerful, the parents emotional and the providers self-interested. This story, which focsues on the use of hyperbaric oxygen treatments for autism, does a decent job navigating the minefield.
Three best practices the story follows include:
On balance, however, the story gives more space to supporters [10 paragraphs] than to skeptics  or neutral information . This makes the story incline at least slightly in the positive direction.
The most serious flaws of the story include:
Having said all this: The reader is likely to take away the impression that this treatment is on the fringe, growing in popularity, and medically uNPRoven. Given all the things that can go wrong with an autism story, this is a positive outcome.
The story cites costs at one center of $3,000 for 40 treatment sessions.
As the article makes clear, there is no high-quality research into the treatment’s efficacy.
The article fails to make the risks of hyperbaric oxygen treatment clear.
Risks include: seizures; problems in the lungs, eyes and vascular system; and isolated pockets of pain. Rarely, the symptoms are very serious. The treatment is contraindicated for certain patients, such as diabetics. The equipment is a serious fire hazard.
The story should have cited all this.
It should also have warned readers that the risks of side effects and fires are likely to be higher when conducted outside of a hospital environment by non-physicians, which appears to be the way the centers in the article operate.
There is no good evidence to demonstrate the efficacy or safety of hyperbaric oxygen treatment for autism.
The story makes this very clear in several places and mentions some of the ongoing research whose results are expected soon.
The report does nothing to exaggerate the prevalence or severity of autism.
While it includes anecdotes that imply efficacy of the oxygen treatment, it does so in a context of appropriately skeptical reportage.
The article quotes the following sources:
- two operators of hyperbaric oxygen treatment facilities
- one partner in a clinic who believes the treatment helped her son
- one medical expert who is supportive
- two independent medical experts who are skeptical
While this sourcing favors supporters, the reporter discloses or implies the conflicts of interest the clinic operators have. The two skeptical medical sources are highly credible.
All things considered, the story minimally achieves a "satisfactory" rating on this criterion.
While autism is not curable, it is treatable.
Early behavioral interventions are showing some promise [though they too are unsupported by gold-standard evidence]. Other approaches, including medications and diet, can control some symptoms associated with the underlying condition. Chelation is another controversial, non-medically-proven treatment.
The story should have put oxygen therapy in the context of conventional and other treatments.
The story mentions two centers in its circulation area where hyperbaric oxygen treatment is available. It implies it is available in centers and hospital scattered around the country.
The report includes the name of a trade group, allowing anybody who wants to find a center to do so.
The article makes no claims of novelty. It makes it clear that autism is a "new market" for "an industry that has served mostly scuba divers, stroke victims, and people recovering from wounds."
It correctly describes the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism as a rare treatment growing in popularity among parents seeking alternative tratments.
It’s clear that this story didn’t rely solely or largely on a news release.