— If you are a parent seeking advice on how to help your autistic child, a web search might bring you to a set of instructive videos by Phil Commander. The tutorials cover a wide range of behavioural interventions, using noisemakers and poker chips, which are meant to boost autistic youngsters ability to respond to other people.
Commander has no formal psychiatric training, though. He is one of a growing number of laypeople sharing health advice on the popular video-sharing site YouTube.
Each day an estimated 100 million videos are watched by people who visit YouTube, which was launched in February 2005, and was acquired by Google in October 2006, in a $1.65 billion stock deal.
Hip-hop breast examination
Many of the health-related videos on the site are simply humorous. There is, for example, the dad who shows how to protect his infant from bird flu by putting a small tent around the boys highchair.
But some of the funny clips are born from real-life experience. Vancouver-based comedian David Milchard says that the idea for a recent skit on testicular cancer that he co-wrote was inspired by a doctors visit. Initially the reason we did it was because it was funny to talk about, he says, referring to how some people giggle when male anatomy is mentioned, but at the same time we wanted to talk about something that people usually dont discuss.
In another clip, a comedy troupe from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, tries encouraging women to do a monthly self-exam for breast cancer by putting the message to a popular hip-hop song. The woman singing the adapted version of the song encourages others to: Raise your arms in the air/ check for tumours up in there/ check after your menses/ then go shop for Fendi.
Not all of the clips on the site come from laypeople, however. A government funded clinic in Builth in Wales, UK, has posted videos on YouTube with nurses demonstrating how to sample blood sugar levels and use an inhaler.
Richard Walters, a doctor at the clinic who produced the videos, says the clips are meant to help people master medical tasks. Its an idea I would have thought drug companies would have done themselves, he says. But they havent, so we did.
The visual element of YouTube makes it possible to explain treatments and interventions that are difficult to describe in other web-based formats, such as discussion groups, explains Commander.
Since his six-year-old son was diagnosed with autism three years ago, he has been very active sharing his tips online with other parents about how to help children with the disorder. He says his son has made significant progress thanks to a number of games taken out of books about treating autism that promote interaction.
Commander, who runs an office-cleaning company in New Jersey, US, initially got the idea of using YouTube after viewing rock music clips his brother pointed him to on the site. At some point it just hit me Ill show everything Im doing with my son on YouTube.
Larry Kaplan, executive director of the recently founded US Autism and Asperger Association, says that parents are eager for videos showing how to do behavioural interventions with their autistic children because health funds rarely cover medical visits designed for this purpose.
But he and other experts worry that some parents might see advice on YouTube as a replacement for professional guidance.
Whilst it can be helpful and empowering to speak to someone who understands how you feel and to share the wealth of experience, knowledge and insight that parents have, it is important to remember that autism is a complex condition, says Alan Bicknell, at the UK's National Autistic Society.
Bicknell stresses that each autistic child has different needs: The outcome of any approach will depend on the needs of the individual, which vary greatly, and the appropriate application of the intervention. It is, therefore, essential that professional services exist to offer help and advice appropriate to the individual's needs.
"Biased and unscientific"
Wendy Raskind, an autism researcher at the University of Washington in the US, says that she views lay sites for medical information with scepticism. They can be very helpful in providing support, but can be very misleading in the information they give about new therapies, she says. Much of what has been touted in the past for autism was very biased, unscientific and, despite the good intentions of the people trying to come up with treatments, they led the parents down a garden path of false hope.
Ted Gansler, director of medical content at the American Cancer Society, agrees. He says that one clip attributing breast cancer to abortion serves as an example of how online video clips can spread inaccurate information.
He adds that, while viewers might trust well-produced web videos just because of their sleek design, there is always the need for people to check what they see: If this kind of medium promotes awareness thats good but I would stress the importance of verifying facts.