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Who Was Dr. Ole Ivar Loovas?

Most people who work in a behavioral, psychological, or educational field know at least a little something about Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas. He was the primary individual who pioneered treatment interventions for those with autism and set the stage for more in-depth and specific research surrounding Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA therapy) as well as brought it to the public’s attention. Not only did Lovaas conduct research, but he also conducted 40 years of advanced autism research. His name is the cornerstone of treatment therapies and interventions that those working with children with autism still use today (Lovaas.com). 

The Beginning 

In the 1950s Lovaas was just starting out after graduating and began working in an institutional setting. While some of his and his clinical colleagues’ interventions with patients—such as shock therapy—may seem primitive and unethical today, there was great success in the behavior modification they were conducted on patients who exhibited extreme self-injurious behaviors. They saw improvement in more appropriate behaviors and a decrease in unsafe ones. “The shift in treatment from a Freudian theory-based practice (more subjective and more about feelings), to one based solely on empirical evaluations and reliable data created what today is known Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)” (The Lovaas Center). 

Positive Results and a Questionable Past

Going forward into the next two decades, Lovaas’ ABA therapy interventions yielded successful and positive results. In the 1960s, he and his colleagues at UCLA conducted “studies [that] documented the success of ABA interventions in teaching the children to imitate others, speak in words, and regulate severely aggressive or self-injurious behavior.” Many in the psychological and medical field questioned his research during this time as well as brought limitations of his studies to light; that did not halt the momentum that Lovaas was experiencing in his research and “vastly increased the sophistication of these interventions” (Psychological Science).

In 1987, Lovaas went on to publish an article entitled Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children where he reported the results that his recent study had yielded. In the article, Lovaas reported that the experimental group of children with autism achieved much better outcomes when given ABA interventions than those children with autism in the control group. Furthermore, he reported that “47% of the experimental group achieved normal intellectual and educational functioning in contrast to only 2% of the control group subject” (Lovaas). 

His study’s results yielded remarkable gains on intelligence tests. 

Even though there is no denying that Lovaas has positively contributed to the field of ABA, he also has quite a controversial professional past that may make today’s clinicians cringe while holding their ethics handbook tight.

In January 1974, Lovaas stated in an interview for Psychology Today

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense – they have hair, a nose and a mouth – but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

Lovaas strongly believed in his behavioral modification interventions, one which included harsh aversive techniques such as providing physical consequences, withholding physical touch and attention, isolation, and even giving electric shock therapy in a shock room, where the floor was laced with metallic strips (Life Magazine 1965). 

This is not the only reason why Lovaas’ memory may be somewhat tarnished to some individuals. 

Lovaas and His Use of Conversion Therapy

Conversion therapy, which can entail a variety of methods, is aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation to heterosexual if they identify with homosexuality, bisexuality, or are transgendered. This type of therapy is typically conducted by therapists, clinicians, and spiritual or religious advisors.  

Lovaas wasn’t the first nor was the last psychologist to use this type of therapy in a clinical setting. In the 1970s, Lovaas decided to use his behavior modification principles on those he deemed “abnormal,” and to him, these were gay, male children. His thought process was that by delivering an aversive stimuli when one of his patients would act out sexually, discuss sexual topics, showed interest in someone of the same sex, wore cross-gendered clothing, spoke feminine, or preferred feminine roles, he would eventually be able to change the behavior and thinking of the patient and “convert” them into becoming heterosexual (Rekers, 1974). 

During these sessions, Lovaas used physically aggressive means of aversion therapy as well as electric shock therapy. Even though the “conversion camps” that Lovaas originally founded are still around today, in 1976 the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health took away his funding “due to complaints of excessive use of corporal punishment against children; Lovaas expanded his techniques to “Autistic” children, using similar characterizations and approaches” (Levinstein, 2018). 

According to The Williams Institute UCLA School of Law, a 2018 study yielded the following estimates regarding the utilization of conversion therapy in LGBT individuals: 

• 698,000 LGBT adults (ages 18-59) in the U.S. have received conversion therapy, including about 350,000 LGBT adults who received treatment as adolescents.

• 20,000 LGBT youth (ages 13-17) will receive conversion therapy from a licensed health care professional before they reach the age of 18 in the 41 states that currently do not ban the practice.

• 6,000 LGBT youth (ages 13-17) who live in states that ban conversion therapy would have received such therapy from a licensed health care professional before age 18 if their state had not banned the practice.

• 57,000 youth (ages 13-17) across all states will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.

Today, conversion therapy continues to be legal in many states. 

Lovaas’ research may have had somewhat of a dark past compared to how studies are now conducted in 2020. Things were different around sixty years ago when most of this began for him; the ethics, the review board, what scientists and clinicians deemed harmful or controversial, have all evolved. In sixty years from now, people may be outraged by some of the research that is currently done. 

Despite some unfavorable actions, Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas brought much valid and reliable research to the public eye on the use of Applied Behavior Analysis interventions on children with autism. Without him, there could be a lack of the same research-based psychological and educational strategies that many professionals use daily with their patients and students. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

February 2020

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