Ole Ivar Lovaas

Ole Ivar Løvaas (8 May 1927 – 2 August 2010)[1][2] was a Norwegian-American clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is considered to be a pioneer within the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) through his development of discrete trial training (DTT), and was the first to provide evidence that the behavior of autistic children could be modified through teaching.[3] In 1999, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General described Lovaas's techniques as having been shown to be efficacious at "reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication, learning, and appropriate social behavior" which is based on "thirty years of research."[4] Subsequent research has found mixed evidence of the therapy's effectiveness in developing communication skills, but an impact in motor skills and functional skills have been proven, and high-intensity interventions tend to have greater impacts than low-intensity interventions.[5]

O. Ivar Løvaas
Ole Ivar Løvaas

8 May 1927
Died2 August 2010 (aged 83)
OccupationClinical Psychology Professor
EmployerUniversity of California, Los Angeles – UCLA
Known forApplied behavior analysis
Discrete trial training

Personal life

Lovaas was born in Lier, Norway on May 8, 1927 to Hildur and Ernst Albert Lovaas.[6] He had 2 siblings: an older sister named Nora and a younger brother named Hans Erik.[7] He was a farm worker during the 1940s Nazi occupation of Norway. After graduating high school, he served in the Norwegian Air force for 18 months. After the war, Lovaas moved to the United States for college and made a name for himself in the field of psychology. Lovaas married Beryl Scoles in 1955, and together they had four children. After his divorce from Beryl, he married his second wife Nina, with whom he had no children. He is survived by his wife Nina, his children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.[8][9]


Lovaas attended Hegg Elementary School in Lier from 1934 to 1941. He attended junior high school at Drammen Realskole until 1944, and then moved on to Drammen Latin School for high school, graduating in 1947.[7]

Lovaas attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, graduating in 1951 after just one year with his BA in sociology. He received his Masters of Science in clinical psychology from the University of Washington in 1955, and his Ph.D. in learning and clinical psychology from the same school 3 years later.[7]


Early in his career, Lovaas worked at the Pinel Foundation, which focused on Freudian psychoanalysis.[7] After earning his PhD, Lovaas worked at the University of Washington’s Child Development Institute, where he first learned of behavior analysis. He began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1961 in the Department of Psychology. Here he worked with children with autism spectrum disorder at the school’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.[6] He started an early intervention clinic at UCLA called the UCLA Young Autism Project, which focused on intervention in the home setting. He was a well-known professor at UCLA, and was named Professor Emeritus in 1994. Lovaas also established the Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention (LIFE), which provided services to children with autism.[7]

In addition to being a major contributor of ABA, Lovaas taught now prominent behaviorists, such as Robert Koegel, Laura Schreibman, Tristram Smith, John McEachin, Ron Leaf, Doreen Granpeesheh, Jacquie Wynn, and thousands of UCLA students who took his "Behavior Modification" course during his 50 years of teaching. He also co-founded what is today the Autism Society of America (ASA), published hundreds of research articles and books, received state and national awards, and forced school districts to adopt evidence-based teaching programs. His work influenced how autism is treated.[10][11][12]

Lovaas method

At the University of Washington, Lovaas was influenced greatly by pioneers in the field of applied behavior analysis, such as Sidney W. Bijou, Donald Baer, Montrose Wolf, Todd Risley and James Sherman.

There is only weak evidence that the Lovaas method is effective.[5]

In his original studies in the late 1950s aversives such as electric shock successfully treated many individuals engaging in extreme self-injury (eye gouging, head banging) whose life expectancy was reduced by secondary infection. Subsequent studies were on extinction methods, in which attention is given only when persons are not engaging in self-injury. Lovaas's use of highly aversive methods, uncommon even in his time, are now very rarely used and controversial in the field.[13]

The "Lovaas method" includes high treatment intensity up to 40-hours per week in a 1:1 teaching setting using discrete trials, treatment is done at home with parents involved in every aspect of treatment, the curriculum is highly individualized with a heavy emphasis on teaching eye contact and language, and ABA principles are used to motivate learning and reduce non-desired behaviors. The "Lovaas Method" went on the become "Early Intensive Behavior Intervention" or "EIBI." In addition to being one of the founders of ABA, Lovaas taught now prominent behaviorists such as Robert Koegel, Laura Schreibman, Ted Carr, Ron Leaf, Tristram Smith, Doreen Granpeesheh, Jacquie Wynn, Annette Groen, John McEachin and over 20,000 students at UCLA who took his course during his 50 years of teaching. He co-founded what is today the Autism Society of America (ASA), published hundreds of research articles and books, received state and national awards, and forced school districts to adopt evidence-based teaching programs. His work influenced how autism was treated, and affected the lives of parents and children diagnosed with autism worldwide.

The whole approach is disputed, though, by advocates of neurodiversity,[14] such as Michelle Dawson or Ari Ne'eman, who claim it forces people to repress their true personalities on behalf of a narrow conception of normality. Edward K. Morris of the University of Kansas has argued that this position grossly misrepresents the actual goals of applied behavior analysis interventions and the standard practices of behavior analysts.[15] However, more recent research has suggested a link between ABA and PTSD in autistic people.[16][17]

Screams, Slaps and Love

In 1965 a photo essay by Don Moser was published in Life Magazine, illustrated with photographs by Alan Grant.[18][19] Entitled Screams, slaps, and love: a surprising, shocking treatment helps fargone mental cripples, the piece focused on a claimed autism therapy and had several photographs of children being punished as a form of aversion therapy.[19] Bernard Rimland wrote of the piece, "Like all behavior modification programs, [Lovaas's] was 98% positive reinforcement, with only a trace of aversive control. Yet, true to the journalistic tradition, the Life article used only those few photographs showing aversive events, out of the hundreds they had taken”.[20] Nevetheless, Lovaas's use of aversives remains the most controversial part of his work.[21]

Work with George Rekers on gender-variant children

In 1974 Lovaas co-authored a paper with George Rekers, a psychology professor at the same university, on attempts to modify the behavior of children with atypical gender behaviors.[22] The study subsequently attracted criticism: Psychologist Robin Winkler wrote that Lovaas and Rekers had failed to differentiate between placating parental wishes and the wellbeing of the subject,[22] and Nordyke and colleagues argued that while Lovaas's therapy may have had worth in attempting to prevent self-mutilation in autistic children, this use of it was inappropriate.[23] The subject of this first of these studies, a 'feminine' young boy who was homosexual of 4 and half years old at the inception of treatment, committed suicide as an adult; his family attribute the suicide to this treatment.[24][25][26]

Following his suicide in 2010, the man's sister told the news that she read his journal which described how he feared disclosing his sexual orientation because when receiving the behavior modification treatment as a young boy, his father would give him spankings if he was given a different color "poker chip" as punishment for feminine-like behavior when playing with dolls.


Lovaas received many awards for his work in the field of psychology. In 2001, he was awarded the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology Distinguished Career Award.[27] He received the Edgar Doll Award from the 33rd Division of the American Psychological Association, the Lifetime Research Achievement Award from the 55th Division of the American Psychological Association, and the Award for Effective Presentation of Behavior Analysis in the Mass Media by the Association for Behavior Analysis International. He was also awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and the California Senate Award, which is an honorary doctorate. He was named a Fellow by Division 7 of the American Psychological Association and was given the Champion of Mental Health Award by Psychology Today.[28]


  • Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book, 1981
  • Teaching Individuals With Developmental Delays: Basic Intervention Techniques, 2003


  1. Autism Support Network.
  2. Campbell, Victoria. Pioneer in autism treatment dies,
  3. "Lovaas Revisited: Should we ever have left?", by Steve Buchman, bbbautism.com, Retrieved on 28 January 2009.
  4. Satcher, David (1999). "Mental Health: A report of the Surgeon General". Department of Health and Human Services. pp. 163–164. Retrieved 4 October 2012.
  5. Ospina, MB; Krebs Seida, J; Clark, B; Karkhaneh, M; Hartling, L; et al. (2008). "Behavioural and Developmental Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Clinical Systematic Review". PLoS ONE. 3 (11): e3755. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003755. PMC 2582449. PMID 19015734.
  6. Larsson, Eric V; Wright, Scott (2011). "O. Ivar Lovaas (1927–2010)". The Behavior Analyst. 34 (1): 111–114. doi:10.1007/BF03392239. PMC 3089401.
  7. Eikeseth, Özerk, Özerk, Vea. “Ole Ivar Lovaas – His Life, Merits, and Legacy.” International Journal of Elementary Education, Dec. 2016, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1126605.pdf
  8. Fox, Margalit. "O. Ivar Lovaas, Pioneer in Developing Therapies for Autism, Dies at 83". Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  9. "Ole Ivar Lovaas dies at 83; UCLA psychology professor pioneered autism treatment". Los Angeles Times. 6 August 2010.
  10. Larsson EV, Wright S (2011). "O. Ivar Lovaas (1927–2010)". The Behavior Analyst. 34 (1): 111–114. doi:10.1007/BF03392239. PMC 3089401.
  11. Smith, T.; Eikeseth, S. (2011). "O. Ivar Lovaas: Pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis and Intervention for Children with Autism". J Autism Dev Disord. 41 (3): 375–378. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-1162-0. PMID 21153872.
  12. Leaf, Ronald; McEachin, John; Taubman, Mitchell (2008). Sense and Nonsense in the Behavioral Treatment of Autism: It Has To Be Said. New York: DRL. p. 13–35. ISBN 978-0-975-58599-3.
  13. Johnston, J.M.; Foxx, Richard M.; Jacobson, John W.; Green, Gina; Mulick, James A. (2006). "Positive Behavior Support and Applied Behavior Analysis". The Behavior Analyst. 29 (1): 51–74. doi:10.1007/BF03392117. PMC 2223172. PMID 22478452.
  14. Soloman, Andrew. "The Autism Rights Movement". New York Magazine. Retrieved 8 March 2016.
  15. Morris, Edward K. (2009). "A Case Study in the Misrepresentation of Applied Behavior Analysis in Autism: The Gernsbacher Lectures". The Behavior Analyst. 32 (1): 205–240. doi:10.1007/BF03392184. PMC 2686987. PMID 22478522.
  16. Sandoval-Norton, Aileen; Shkedy, Gary (2019). "How much compliance is too much compliance: Is long-term ABA therapy abuse?". Cogent Psychology. 6 (1). doi:10.1080/23311908.2019.1641258.
  17. Kupferstein, Henny (2018). "Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis". Advances in Autism. 4 (1): 19–29. doi:10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016.
  18. John Donvan; Caren Zucker (19 January 2016). In a Different Key: The Story of Autism. Penguin Books Limited. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-14-197345-6.
  19. Bowman RA, Baker JP (March 2014). "Screams, slaps, and love: the strange birth of applied behavior analysis". Pediatrics. 133 (3): 364–6. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-2583. PMID 24534411.
  20. Larsson EV, Wright S (2011). "O. Ivar Lovaas (1927–2010)". Behav Anal (Obituary). 34 (1). PMC 3089401.
  21. Smith T, Eikeseth S (March 2011). "O. Ivar lovaas: pioneer of applied behavior analysis and intervention for children with autism". J Autism Dev Disord. 41 (3): 375–8. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-1162-0. PMID 21153872.
  22. Winkler RC (1977). "What types of sex-role behavior should behavior modifiers promote?". J Appl Behav Anal. 10 (3): 549–52. doi:10.1901/jaba.1977.10-549. PMC 1311224. PMID 924923.
  23. Nordyke NS, Baer DM, Etzel BC, LeBlanc JM (1977). "Implications of the stereotyping and modification of sex role". J Appl Behav Anal. 10 (3): 553–7. doi:10.1901/jaba.1977.10-553. PMC 1311225. PMID 924924.
  24. Bronstein, Scott; Joseph, Jessi (7 June 2011). "Therapy to change 'feminine' boy created a troubled man, family says". CNN. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  25. Szalavitz, Maia (8 June 2011). "The 'Sissy Boy' Experiment: Why Gender-Related Cases Call for Scientists' Humility". Time. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  26. Warren Throckmorton (9 June 2011). "Experts and Homosexuality: Don't Try This at Home". Huffington Post. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  27. SCCAP Award Winners: Division 53, (Retrieved 29 May 2018)
  28. IshYoBoy.com. "Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas | Pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)". The Lovaas Center. Retrieved 18 June 2018.

Further reading

  • "Screams, Slaps & Love: A surprising, shocking treatment helps far-gone mental cripples". Life magazine, 1965.
  • Lovaas OI (1987). "Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children". J Consult Clin Psychol. 55 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.55.1.3. PMID 3571656.
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