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Now called Early intensive behavior intervention

LOVAAS technique, a form of treatment guided by applied behavior analysis, is a therapy for children diagnosed with autism or related disorders. The technique consists of an intensive behavioral intervention which is carried out early in the development of autistic children. It involves discrete-trial teaching, breaking skills down into their most basic components and rewarding positive performance. It was also known for its use of aversives to punish unwanted behaviors.

Implementation[edit | edit source]

The Lovaas approach is a highly structured comprehensive program that relies heavily on discrete trial training (DTT) methods. Within Lovaas therapy, DTT is used to reduce stereotypical autistic behaviours through extinction and the provision of socially acceptable alternatives to self-stimulatory behaviors. Intervention can start when a child is as young as three and can last from two to six years. The first year seeks to reduce self-stimulatory behavior, teaches imitation, establishes playing with toys in their intended manner, and integration of the family into the treatment protocol. The second year teaches early expressive and abstract linguistic skills, peer interaction, basic socializing skills, and strives to include the individual's community in the treatment to optimize mainstreaming while eliminating any possible sources of stigmatization. The third year focuses on emotional expression and variation in addition to observational learning, and pre-academic skills such as reading writing, and arithmetic. Rarely is the technique implemented for the first time with adults.[1][2]

The Lovaas method is ideally performed five to seven days a week with each session lasting from five to seven hours, totaling an average of 35-40 hours per week.[3] Each session is divided into trials with intermittent breaks. The trials do not have a specified time limit to allow for a natural conclusion when the communicator feels the child is losing focus. Each trial is composed of a series of prompts (verbal, gestural, physical, etc.) that are issued by the “communicator” who is positioned directly across the table from the individual receiving treatment. These prompts can range from “put in”,” put on”,” show me”,” give to me” and so on, in reference to an object, color, simple imitative gesture, etc. The concept is centered on shaping the child to correctly respond to the prompts, increasing the attentive ability of the individual, and mainstreaming the child for academic success. Should the child fail to respond to a prompt, a “prompter,” seated behind the child, uses either a partial-, a simple nudge or touch on the hand or arm or a full-, hand over hand assistance until the prompt has been completed, physical guide to correct the individual’s mistake or non-compliance. Each correct response is reinforced with verbal praise, an edible, time with a preferred toy, or any combination thereof.[1][4][2] DTT is often used in conjunction with the picture exchange communication system (PECS) as it primes the child for an easy transition between treatment types. The PECS program serves as another common intervention technique used to mainstream individuals with autism.[5] As much as 25% of the autistic population has no functional speech, the remainder typically display pronounced phonological and grammatical deficits in addition to a limited vocabulary.[6] The program teaches spontaneous social communication through symbols and/or pictures by relying on ABA techniques. [7] PECS operates on a similar premise to DTT in that it uses systematic chaining to teach the individual to pair the concept of expressive speech with an object. It is structured in a similar fashion to DTT, in that each session begins with a preferred reinforcer survey to ascertain what would most motivate the child and effectively facilitate learning.[7]

Effectiveness[edit | edit source]

Lovaas was developed based on research performed by Lovaas and his assistants.[1] This research reported that 47% of those children that had received an average of 40 hours of intensive therapy were mainstreamed into regular classrooms, and were classified as "indistinguishable" from their peers in follow-up studies. Although subsequent studies have shown that intensive behavioral therapy clearly benefited children with autism, Lovaas's original claims of effectiveness were overstated.[8] A 2005 California study found that early intensive behavior analytic treatment, a form of ABA, was substantially more effective for preschool children with autism than the mixture of methods provided in many programs;[9] this study did not use random assignment or a uniform assessment protocol, and provided limited information about the intervention, making it difficult to replicate.[10]

Smith et al (2002)[11] performed a preliminary study comprised of nine high-functioning autistic children, all of which were previous recipients of EIBI, of the ages five to seven in free play settings. The purpose was to assess the effects of EIBI on solitary activities, ritualistic behaviors, and social activity when exposed to the two experimental groups. Each child participated in four, one hour sessions consisting of 15 minute periods of play with either a typically developing peer or a lower functioning autistic child with major deficits in pragmatic communication, social interaction and self-care. Children had never met prior. The period of play began with 15 minutes of play with either the typically developed (TD) peer or the developmentally disabled (DD) peer and alternated accordingly in one of two variations: TD-DD-TD-DD or DD-TD-DD-TD. Observers rated play on five criterion: i. interactive toy play, ii. interactive speech, iii. solitary toy play, iv. solitary speech, and v. self-stimulation. Data showed the high-functioning children displayed significantly more instances of interactive play and interactive speech when paired with the typically developed.[11]

Aversives[edit | edit source]

While the therapy has always relied principally on positive reinforcement of preferred behavior, Lovaas's original technique also included more extensive use of aversives such as striking, shouting, or using electrical shocks.[12] These procedures have been widely abandoned for over a decade. A review of literature by autistic activist Michelle Dawson asserts that the method has become less effective since these stimuli were abandoned.[13] Only one institution, the Judge Rotenberg Center, still employs electric shocks as aversives—a practice that continues to cause them considerable legal and political controversy.[14]

Cost of Care[edit | edit source]

A concern that parents have brought up regarding Lovaas is the cost, which in April 2002 amounted to about US$4,200 per month ($50,000 annually per child).[15] In addition, the 20–40 hours per week intensity of the program, often conducted at home, may place additional stress on already challenged families.

Another study estimated the expenses of a three year period of DTT to total a conservative cost of $20,000 and the extreme cost of $60,000, with a yearly average of $40,000. These costs were based on a sliding scale model that would be adjusted accordingly to socio-economic status and parental involvement. Yearly expenditures were predicted to drop to an average of $22,500 a year when parents and family became involved in the process. Additional family involvement would subsequently alleviate case manager and paraprofessional hours by assuming their roles in the process. The upfront costs of DTT for the state of Texas would initially amount to $67,500 for three years compared to the currently state budgeted $33,000 for Special Education. The difference is predicted to be recovered within five years of the initial implementation of the program. Texas would experience a 72% reduction in expenses in the 15 year offset following the conclusion of DTT, amounting to a total savings of $84,300 per child. [16][17]

However, the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to ALL children over the age of three. Many Due Process and court decisions have found 35-40 hours per week of ABA to be FAPE. Parents may wish to consider hiring and attorney or advocate if their school district denies ABA treatment.

Thomas et al (2007)[17] conducted a survey study that involved 383 families with children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder from North Carolina. Three quarters of these families reported using a major treatment plan. Of these, college or graduate degree holding parents were two to four times more likely to use a neurologist and/or PECS. Annual incomes of $50,000 or more had higher rates of using developmental pediatricians and speech/language therapists. Racial and ethnic minorities were half as likely to see a case manager. These families also had a quarter of the odds of seeing a psychologist, developmental pediatrician, or implementing sensory integration. [17] This supports several other national studies that concluded racial and ethnic families, parents with a low degree of education, and those not residing in a metropolitan area were more likely to receive limited care, utilize a less diverse range of services and less likely to follow a major treatment plan. [18][19] Both the national studies and the North Carolinian study yielded a correlation between high stress levels and amount of services sought. [18][19][17]

Families that did not identify with a major treatment approach had one fifth to one half the odds of using support of friends and family in providing care. Therapeutic support services (PECS, parent support classes, sensory integration, casein- and gluten-free diets) were also one fifth to one half as likely to be used compared to families identifying with major treatment plans. [17]

Insurance coverage is another major determinant in the amount of support services received. Recipients of Medicaid or other forms of public health insurance have 2-11 times the odds of using services that are considered medically necessary. Utilization of respite, PECS, case managers, speech or language therapists also increases markedly in this bracket compared to families with private insurance. [17]

Rising costs in education and the provision of adequate care for developmentally disabled individuals have been a continuing concern for state policy makers and tax payers alike. A study was conducted on cost comparison of 18 years of traditional Special Education on Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) for autistic children. The Texas state budget for the year 2002 allotted $11,000 per child for Special Education. The study suggested the state would save an average of $208,500 per child over an 18 year period by implementing DTT in early childhood, effectively curbing or eliminating future special needs costs by preparing the child academically for mainstreaming. This amounted to a potential total savings of $2.9 billion over an 18 year period for a cohort consisting of 10,000 autistic children. [16]

Criticisms[edit | edit source]

Lovaas' technique and Applied Behavioral Analysis in general have received an increasing amount of criticisms over the years. Gresham and MacMillar (1998) [20] specifically cite a lack of a true experimental design in Lovaas' (1987) experiment on early intervention. They charge that he instead implemented a quasi-experimental design of matched pairs regarding the distribution of subjects within the experimental and control groups. Gresham and MacMillar (1998) [20] also state a lack of a true representation of autism in that the subjects were neither randomly sampled from the cumulative autistic population nor were they randomly assigned to treatment groups. The internal validity of the study was also called into question due to the possibility of skewed data resulting from three influential threats. Instrumentation, changes or variations in measurement of procedures over time, was argued to have been altered in both the pre-test and post-test conditions which were confounded by a differentiation in ascertaining cognitive abilities and intelligence of the subjects. The pre-test utilized four measures of cognitive ability and mental development. Five of the subjects' intelligence was determined through a parent-reported measure of adaptive behavior. All of the subjects were post-tested three years later using five other measures of intelligence and cognitive ability. Long-term follow-up was assessed with three measurements of (1) intelligence, (2) nonverbal reasoning, and (3) receptive language. The original three measurements during the testing phase were determined by (1) IQ score, (2) class placement, and (3) promotion/retention. [20] External validity was called into question concerning sample characteristics. Lovaas' (1987) criteria for acceptance into the program required a psychological mental age greater than 11 years and a chronological age less than 46 months in the case of echolalic children. Schopler et al. (1989)[21] purport that if both the intellectual and echolalia criteria were rigidly adhered to at the North Carolina institute, approximately 57% of the referrals would have been excluded from the program.

Other criticisms include a failure to operationally define the use of the term 'reinforcement' for compliance, the use of a Pro-rated Mental Age, and the statistical regression of the child's IQ over time. [20][22] Boyd (1998)[23] addressed the potential impact of a disproportionate sex ratio of females to males on the control group's mean IQ score. Females with autism typically display slightly lower levels of functioning in comparison to their their male counterparts. [24]

In a rejoinder to Boyd's (1998)[23] article that cited an unequal sex ratio as a source of error, Lovaas (1998) [25] listed three reasons as to why the disporportionate ratio's influence on the data was negligible. The autistic population at the time had a ratio of 4:1. Lovaas (1998)[25] argued that the ratios for the experimental group, control group 1, and control group 2 of 16:3, 11:8, and 16:5, respectively, were in fact near the expected ratio scale of the general population with the exception of control group 1. The second argument lay in the studies Boyd (1998)[23] referenced in regards to low intellectual performance in females diagnosed with autism. One of the studies admitted to having a female subject with Rett disorder, a condition that showed little responsiveness to intensive early behavioral intervention. Lovaas (1998)[25] concluded by proposing that males may more readily meet diagnostic criteria for autism because of certain salient characteristics inherent in the sex while the subtleties in their female counterparts may be overlooked.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Lovaas OI (February 1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. J Consult Clin Psychol 55 (1): 3–9. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LOI" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sallows GO, Graupner TD (November 2005). Intensive behavioral treatment for children with autism: four-year outcome and predictors. Am J Ment Retard 110 (6): 417–38.
  3. Jacobson JW, Mulick JA, Green G. (1998). Cost-benefit estimates for early intensive behavioral intervention for young children with autism: General model and single state case. Behavioral Interventions, 13: 201-226.
  4. McEachin JJ, Smith T, Lovaas OI (January 1993). Long-term outcome for children with autism who received early intensive behavioral treatment. Am J Ment Retard 97 (4): 359–72; discussion 373–91.
  5. Howlin P, Gordon RK, Pasco G, Wade A, Charman T (May 2007). The effectiveness of Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) training for teachers of children with autism: a pragmatic, group randomised controlled trial. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 48 (5): 473–81.
  6. Volkmar FR, Lord C, Baily A, Schultz RT, Klin A. (2004). Autism and pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45: 135-170 Retrieved from
  7. 7.0 7.1 Frost LA, Bondy AS. (2002). The Picture Exchange Communication System Training Manual, Second Edition. Newark, DE: Pyramid Educational Products Inc
  8. Francis K (2005). Autism interventions: a critical update. Dev Med Child Neurol 47 (7): 493–99.
  9. Howard JS, Sparkman CR, Cohen HG, Green G, Stanislaw H (2005). A comparison of intensive behavior analytic and eclectic treatments for young children with autism. Res Dev Disabil 26 (4): 359–83.
  10. Schoneberger T (2006). EIBT research after Lovaas (1987): a tale of two studies. J Speech-Lang Pathol Appl Behav Anal 1 (3): 207–7.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Smith T, Lovaas NW, Lovaas OI. (2002). Behaviors of children with high-functioning autism when paired with typically developing versus delayed peers: A preliminary study. Behavioral Interventions, 17: 129-143 DOI: 10.1002/bin.114
  12. includeonly>Moser D, Grant A. "Screams, slaps and love", Life, 1965-05-07.
  13. Dawson, Michelle The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry. URL accessed on 2007-06-10. Note that this is a self-published document, and has not been subject to a peer review.
  14. includeonly>Gonnerman, Jennifer. "School of Shock", Mother Jones Magazine, 20 August 2007. Retrieved on 2007-12-22.
  15. Elder, Jennifer Harrison (2002). Current treatments in autisms: Examining scientific evidence and clinical implications. Journal of Neuroscience Nursing 34 (2): 67.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Chasson GS, Harris GE, Nealy WT. (2007). Cost comparison of early intensive behavioral intervention and special education for children with autism. Journal of Family Studies, 16: 401- 441 DOI: 10.1007/s 10826-006-9094-1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "CGS" defined multiple times with different content
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 Thomas KC, Ellis AR, McLaurin C, Daniels J, Morrissay JP. (2007). Access to care for autism related Services. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37: 1902-1912 DOI: 10.1007/j10803-006-0323-7. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TKC" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TKC" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TKC" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TKC" defined multiple times with different content
  18. 18.0 18.1 Hurth J, Shaw E, Izeman S, Whaley K, Rogers S. (1999). Areas of agreement about effective practices among programs serving young children with autism spectrum disorders. Infants and Young Children, 12: 17-26 Retrieved from
  19. 19.0 19.1 Rogers, S. (1998). Neuropsychology of autism in young children and its implications for early intervention. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 4: 104-111 Retrieved from Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "RS" defined multiple times with different content
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Gresham, FM & MacMillar, DL. (1998). Early intervention project: Can its claims be substantiated and its effects replicated? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,28(1): 5-13 Retrieved from Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "GRE" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "GRE" defined multiple times with different content
  21. Schopler E, Short A, & Meisbov G. (1989). Relation of behavioral treatment to "normal functioning": Comment on lovaas. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57: 162-164 Retrieved from
  22. Eikeseth, S. (2001). Recent critiques of the ucla young autism project. Behavioral Interventions, 16: 249-264 DOI: 10.1002.bin.095
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Boyd, RD. (1998). Sex as possible source of group inequivalence in Lovaas (1998). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28: 211-215 Retrieved from
  24. Lord, C & Schopler, E. (1982). Sex differences in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 12: 317-330 Retrieved from
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Lovaas, OI. (1998). Sex and bias: Reply to Boyd. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 28(4): 343-344 Retrieved from

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