Tribute to Dr. Ivar Lovaas
Written by Harold Doherty
I never met Dr. Ivar Lovaas in person. My 14 year old son, Conor (diagnosed at age 2 with Autistic Disorder and profound Developmental Delays), was never a patient or a subject in a Lovaas study. Yet, when Dr. Lovaas passed away recently I felt that one of the most important people in my son's life had been lost. Through his career and research he helped our family, our teachers, and autism service providers, teach my son and other children with autism. He proved to us that we could help children with autism learn to communicate, to overcome deficits, to grow, and to live more rewarding lives.
The importance of Dr. Lovaas in my son's life stems from his research, reported in 1987 and 1993, which demonstrates that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) can help many children with autism overcome the cognitive, linguistic, and behavioral deficits which are often displayed in these children. Unfortunately, I cannot provide testimonial evidence that my son Conor, who is severely impaired by his disability, has recovered from autism because of ABA. This is partly because such services were not readily available in Fredericton (New Brunswick, province of Canada) where we lived at the time when Conor received his diagnosis. I did not learn about ABA until Conor was almost four years old, when the preschool development window was already closing for him. Therefore, he did not have the opportunity to receive 40 hours per week of discrete trial training between the ages of two and five. Notwithstanding the severity of my son's condition, and his late introduction to the ABA principles that Dr. Lovaas demonstrated, he has been helped immeasurably by the effective autism intervention created through this research.
Dr. Lovaas' work helped convince this father that ABA was the best bet on which to gamble my son's valuable development time. That research provided me and my wife, Heather,with the confidence and the methods to help us communicate with our severely autistic son, and help him grow and develop. As parents, few gifts are greater than these. My knowledge of Lovaas and of ABA began when I attended lectures given by a clinical psychologist and University of New Brunswick (UNB) psychology professor emeritus, Paul McDonnell, PhD, who worked with children with autism and educated many parents about the Lovaas studies and about ABA principles in general.
In particular, Dr. McDonnell gave a lecture entitled, "Managing Problem Behavior in Autistic Children." It is the only talk from the many, varied, and bewildering seminars given by various purported authorities in those early years that I can remember with any detail. It was the only presentation at which I was made aware of learning principles that would be helpful in dealing with the serious challenges a parent faces in raising a child with autism. I can still visualize a "Problem Behavior Extinction" Chart from that lecture, based on evidence, which showed how to eliminate problematic (including dangerous and self-injurious) behavior in children with autism. The effectiveness of ABA principles was not "pie-in-the-sky" nonsense. The claim of effectiveness was based on solid research, and in particular, on the research of Dr. Ivar Lovaas.
At the conclusion of that presentation by Dr. McDonnell, I immediately tried to use what I learned. That evening, in a crude application of ABA principles, I refused my son's initial screaming for what I knew, from experience, was a favorite treat (an apple), until he started to ask for it by saying the word, "apple." I repeated "apple" in two drawn out syllables, "Appp ... pull." Conor continued to scream. This process continued for almost 45 minutes until Conor finally said, "App." I immediately gave him a bite of the apple. Each time he said, "App," he got another bite. Then I insisted that he say "app-pull" to get another bite. After almost an hour and a half of this process, Conor had said "apple" several times, and without prompting.
This anecdote might not seem like much to many people, but to me it was the first time I was able to teach my son to say a word. It was the first time that I could communicate with him at all, in any meaningful way, other than by guessing what he was trying to say through his screaming. The process I just described was not easy for me to endure as a parent; to withhold what I knew my son wanted while he screamed in frustration. That experience, though, was the beginning of my ability to communicate meaningfully with my son with autism, and he with me. I was able to do it, I was able to communicate with him meaningfully, because the principles were sound and because I was convinced it would work. I was convinced it would work because of the research evidence in support of its effectiveness, especially the research by Dr. Lovaas.
Since that initial success there have been many others. Conor's ability to communicate with us, and ours with him, has improved substantially. We used ABA principles at home and were successful at toilet training Conor well before he started school. Frustration-induced aggressive behavior toward others has been eliminated. Conor started his first year of high school, with his own curriculum and with ABA based instruction at school. Conor initially started school in a general classroom for the entire school day, but that resulted in some self-injurious hand-biting. It was resolved shortly thereafter by placement in a more quiet area for his ABA instruction, and the hand-biting disappeared. Otherwise, we have not had a single incident of aggression toward himself or others, nor problem behavior of any kind, reported to us by school officials. Conor loves attending our neighborhood schools, loves receiving his ABA based instruction, and is liked by fellow students and educational staff. I do credit Conor himself. Conor has always been naturally personable, and well liked by other children and adults, but his interaction with others has also been helped by the application of ABA principles to address his more challenging autism based behaviors.
It might surprise some to read that, here in New Brunswick, my son receives ABA based instruction in our neighborhood schools, but that has been the case for several years. The provincial government has provided ABA training to teacher assistants and resource teachers at the UNB-CEL Autism Intervention Training Program. The program is based on ABA principles and research, and has received external review by Dr. Eric Larsson of the Lovaas Institute who described it as "A remarkable and thorough program that has been developed to an exceptional level of quality in the context of limited resources. The province-wide model is one that many other provinces should adopt, as it carries with it many cost-effective features. The curriculum content requires little modification.”
The UNB-CEL program itself was based on ABA research, and includes instruction in discrete trial training. The program was first developed to train autism support workers and clinical supervisors for the preschool autism intervention treatment centers, established in New Brunswick several years ago, in response to intense parent pressure. It was adopted for use in training teacher assistants and resource teachers in our neighborhood schools, again after some determined parent advocacy. As parents supporting our children with autism, we were successful because we were focused, persistent, and well informed about autism and effective interventions. We also succeeded because we had the tools (the Lovaas studies) with which to convince political and civil service leaders that ABA was an effective evidence-based intervention that would help children with autism to learn.
Dr. Lovaas provided our family and our government with evidence that ABA is a powerful intervention for children with autism. He said that "if a child cannot learn in the way we teach, we must teach in a way the child can learn." He also proved to us that it could be done, and showed us how to do it.
Harold Doherty is the former president of the Autism Society of New Brunswick, involved with advocacy for establishment of UNB-CEL Autism Intervention Training program, provision of ABA early intervention up to 20 hours per week provided by the Province of New Brunswick for autistic children between 2 and 5. He currently advocates for autism youth and adult residential care systems in New Brunswick and is the