The Lovaas Method is one of the first types of ABA therapy. Like other types of ABA therapy, this method supports people on the autism spectrum in socialization, language acquisition, and building other important skills to navigate the world.
The Lovaas Method was developed in the psychology department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as part of the UCLA Young Autism Project. Formulated by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas and his team in 1987, this was one of the first structured, measurable approaches to behavior therapy intended to specifically apply to children on the autism spectrum.
Although the original Lovaas Method received justified criticism due to the use of punishments as a reinforcement technique, many of the modern approaches used by Lovaas therapists are in line with current ABA standards and ethics.
How Does the Lovaas Method Work?
Different approaches in ABA therapy have been developed to support different age groups and needs. The Lovaas Method was specifically designed as an early intervention.
Since many children are now diagnosed around 2 or 3 years old, ABA therapy can begin with younger children around 3 or 4 years old, with their parents supervising each session. The Lovaas Method is designed for long-term treatment, usually beginning at 4 years old or younger and lasting for two to three years. Children receive treatment for 40 hours per week in the child’s home.
The structure for each year of Lovaas Method therapy generally looks like this:
- Year 1: Individual discrete trial training occurs in the child’s home, with the child’s parent(s) involved.
- Year 2: Children on the autism spectrum will begin to build social skills with neurotypical peers who are in their age group. These play dates will be supervised by the therapist. The child may also enter a preschool program at this time, increasing opportunities to learn social behaviors, language skills, and daily skills like getting dressed.
- Year 3: As the child spends more time in school among neurotypical peers, the individual therapy will begin to phase out or at least reduce to an appropriate level, depending on the severity of the child’s needs. If they continue to need ABA therapy, they may switch to a different type.
The Lovaas Method pioneered a common approach in ABA therapy: breaking tasks down into much smaller steps so skills can be acquired. When a child learns the next step in a skill or task, they are praised and rewarded with a reinforcer, like a favorite toy or activity.
The Lovaas Method also pioneered the concept of ABCs (antecedent – behavior – consequence) as a way to help children learn new behaviors. For example, if the child reaches to take a snack without asking, the therapist may remove it without acknowledging the behavior. With this being a consequence, the child should be prompted to ask for the snack, in which case the therapist will praise the child, give them the snack, and perhaps find another way to reward them for appropriately using this new behavior.
The program aims to:
- Improve language acquisition and usage.
- Increase emotional attachment to others.
- Increase IQ.
- Reduce the need for support in the classroom.
- Improve socializing skills with neurotypical peers.
- Reduce self-stimulating (“stimming”) behaviors, particularly those that can cause harm.
The program is typically developed and implemented by a trained Lovaas Method therapist, but it may also involve training parents, teachers, other caregivers, and even volunteers to support the child’s progress.
Who Was Dr. Lovaas? How Was the Method Founded?
Dr. Lovaas was hired by UCLA in 1961. He was invited to the Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI) on campus, as one of the researchers on child psychology. He began studying children’s social behaviors and language acquisition, particularly among children who had been institutionalized for mental or behavioral problems. Later, he was invited to study classroom behavior, which influenced his understanding of prompting.
During his work at NPI, Lovaas wrote many papers on social reinforcers, discrimination training, and imitation, predominantly on attempts to create spontaneous language use or skills in children who were mute. His work is among the most respected involving child psychology and behavior.
By 1973, Lovaas conducted a systematic review of his work throughout the 1960s, which uncovered three variables that best supported improvements in behavior and skills acquisition:
- Intensive treatment
- The child’s age when starting treatment
- The family’s involvement in the program
His seminal work with children on the autism spectrum was published in 1987. The study followed 40 children over 15 years, each with tailored behavioral therapy approaches and long-term, intensive support at an appropriate level for their needs. All participants reported substantial improvements in intellectual, educational, emotional, and social skills. Nine of the participants had no diagnosable autism symptoms at the end of the study, and eight maintained a high level of functioning through high school.
Because the program in the study was so successful, peer reviewers were often skeptical. Lovaas himself did not rest on these results. He designed a 10-year study similar to the first, to determine if the improvements could be replicated.
He also established the Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention, a private institution that applied the new Lovaas Method. By 1994, the decade-long study was complete and verified that the Lovaas Method was repeatable across multiple groups of people on the autism spectrum.
Comparing the Original Method to the Modern Method
One detriment to the original structure of the Lovaas Method involves use of both positive and negative reinforcers or even punishment. Modern Lovaas therapists focus entirely on positive reinforcement and refuse to enforce any detrimental behaviors.
However, the original approach developed by Lovaas did involve removing favorite toys, stern verbal reprimands, or even physical interventions to stop the behavior. Lovaas stated that potentially abusive behaviors, as reported in a 1965 Life Magazine photo essay, were used in extreme cases of behavior modification, such as teaching children to stop self-injurious behavior. Lovaas also stated that all of his behavioral and psychological experiments met the approval of the UCLA Human Subjects Committee and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funding committee.
Although some of his original methods, particularly in the 1960s, are unethical by today’s standards, Lovaas himself was one of the first psychologists to believe that people with severe behavioral disorders, like severe autism, are not “sub-trainable” and instead need to be approached methodologically, with understanding and care. He showed the entire field of psychology that children with behavioral disorders could learn new skills, including social interaction.
While Lovaas did not pioneer the full ABA therapy concept, much of his research created the foundation for this therapeutic approach. The Lovaas Method is also consistently adjusting approaches based on scientific research, so unethical or ineffective approaches are removed quickly from the program.
Many therapists who train in ABA may choose to study the Lovaas Method specifically, to refine their approach to younger children on the autism spectrum. Teachers and parents who have children with autism can also benefit from Lovaas Method training.
O. Ivar Lovaas (1927 – 2010). (Spring 2011). Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI).
UCLA/Lovaas Intervention. Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT).
Lovaas Program: Therapy at a Glance. (June 2020). Raising Children: The Australian Parenting Website.
023. Behaviorism, Part Three: O. Ivar Lovaas and ABA. (September 2010). Psychology Today.