A study presented at the International Meeting for Autism last month suggests that parents should be cautious when combing the internet for information about autism. Though the web can be a valuable tool for researching conditions and diseases, there are a lot of sites that do not have rigorous – if any – quality control. As a result, some sites offer their readers information that is unreliable or downright bogus.

Based on their findings, the authors urge people to exercise caution when surfing the web for information on autism.

Brian Reichow and colleagues analyzed 164 of the top websites on autism. But first, the team had to develop a way to assess the quality of the sites, which they dubbed the Website Characterization and Quality Indicator Assessment. This tool consisted of eight different quality indicators, some of which included whether the site revealed its author, gave references, tried to push a “commercial product or service,” promoted “a miracle cure,” had been “updated within the last 6 months,” required the user to give personal or contact information, and whether it contained a “medically oriented disclaimer.”

After analyzing the sample of sites, Reichow and his team found that they typically met “less than 6 of the 8 quality indicators.” Perhaps more disturbing is that “[n]early 1 in 5 websites offered a product or service for purchase, and/or promoted a miracle cure,” and as is not so surprising, it was most often the sites pushing services or cures that were likely to contain the fewest quality indicators.

Based on their findings, the authors urge people to exercise caution when surfing the web for information on autism. They write that “the finding that websites offering a product or service for purchase and/or promoting a miracle cure contained, on average, a lower proportion of total quality indicators suggest that individuals encountering websites containing these aspects must exercise extra cautions.”

Sticking to sites that are university or government websites is likely the best way to get reliable information, because these sites are typically compiled by experts in their fields and undergo quality control. Reichow and his colleagues write that more research will still be needed to assess the quality of the information available on various autism sites.

Brian Reichow is a researcher at Yale University’s Child Study Center; the study’s findings were presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research on May 21, 2010.