What is the Lovaas Method (Early Intensive Behavior Intervention)?

If the Lovaas Method has been recommended for your child, you may have some questions about the treatment. As a parent, you are vital to any intervention.  You must understand the goals and the strategies that you will be asked to support.

Also see: History of Autism Treatment

What is the Lovaas Method?

The Lovaas Method for autism is a form of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).  It’s used in early intervention programs for children who have developmental delays or who have been identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The program, created by Ole Ivar Lovaas, is derived from work done by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. Dr. Lovaas was a researcher in child psychology at the University of California Los Angeles and worked on the UCLA Young Autism Project. 

Dr. Lovaas wanted to create effective behavioral interventions that would help children diagnosed with ASD avoid being institutionalized.  The goal is to begin behavioral treatment intervention with children as young as two to help them gain skills in:

  • communication 
  • education 
  • activities of daily living.

The intervention consists of breaking skills down into the simplest components and rewarding autistic children positively.  The child then then “generalizes” the skills into a natural environment.

The Lovaas Approach became known as Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention or EIBI. The Lovaas treatment rests on the principles of: 

  • Parent involvement
  • Comprehensive and developmental programming
  • Adherence with the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Recognition that all children with autism are unique
  • Use of discrete trials
  • Primarily home-based

Proponents of the Lovaas Model of Applied Behavior Analysis believe it is a beneficial treatment that can help children:

  • Reduce self-stimulation behavior
  • Improve language skills (including verbal communication)
  • Increase IQ
  • Improve socialization skills with peers
  • Increase their emotional attachment to others

The first step is establishing a rapport with the children. The first skill is requesting or asking for something. Children need to learn vocal language, if possible. Parental involvement is crucial for the continuity of treatment at home. Another component of the Lovaas autism treatment approach is encouraging the child to imitate other children to develop social skills. The Lovaas ABA approach of working with autistic and developmentally delayed children is based on scientific principles. Progress is continually measured and adapted as the children age. The motivating rewards differ with each child, as does the program.

Also See: What are the Three Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

What does the Lovaas Method Involve?

The Lovaas approach is an intensive early intervention treatment option. Children with ASD work with a therapy team up to 40 hours per week.  They learn social skills and reduce behavior that can interfere with learning. Their therapy team may consist of:

  • professionals
  • paid aides
  • volunteers
  • parents
  • teachers

Intervention using the Lovaas Method can begin with children as young as three.  Treatment can last between two and six years.  Children may work with a member of their therapy team five to seven days a week from five to seven hours a day.  Sessions are broken into trials with appropriate breaks taken when the child loses focus.   

Lovaas treatment relies heavily on discrete trial training (DTT) methods to help children reach their full potential.  During a trial, children are given prompts and encouraged to respond correctly to the prompts.  If the child doesn’t respond to the prompt they are given, the therapist may use partial or full hand-over-hand assistance to help the child complete the request.  Correct responses are rewarded with verbal praise, a food item, or time spent with a preferred item.  

Also See: DTT ABA- Discrete Trial Teaching in Applied Behavior Analysis

Historical Controversy

The original Lovaas Method is not without controversy.  Some of the original methods from the 1960s are deemed unethical by today’s standards, mostly related to the use of electric shock therapy to reduce inappropriate or self-injurious behavior.  Fortunately, the Lovaas Method is fluid. It consistently adjusts practices based on evidence-based, scientific research, so unethical or ineffective approaches are removed from the program.  

Are there Other Treatments of this kind?

According to an article on the Lovaas Institute home website, there are at least two other major treatments. One is the emotional/development model. In this intervention, therapists concentrate on helping autistic children develop and deal with appropriate emotions. The program is based upon six daily 30-minute “floor sessions” of child-led play with the therapist. There are some structured activities as well.

An example of this model is the Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR/Floortime) Model developed by Dr. Greenspan.  Dr. Greenspan developed this model in the 1980s as an alternative to ABA or to be used in conjunction with other ABA therapies.  Therapists work with the child to reach six milestones that contribute to their emotional and intellectual growth.  These milestones include:

  • Self-regulation and interest in the world
  • Intimacy, or engagement in relationships
  • Emotional Thinking
  • Emotional Ideas
  • Complex Communication
  • Two-Way Communication

Another popular behavior therapy model used with children with ASD is TEACCH, or the Educational/School Model. This model was developed at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill by Dr. Eric Schopler and Dr. Robert Reichler.  This is the most rigid of the programs.  It’s delivered in a highly structured classroom environment.  The TEACCH method uses several components to teach different skills including:

  • schedules and routines
  • visual cues
  • learned patterns like working from left to right 

Students will also strengthen their skills in independence and self-efficacy.  Although the intervention is classroom-based, it focuses on issues beyond academic learning.  Professionals must be certified by TEACCH Autism Program.  Two certification levels are available, including the Practitioner and the Advanced Consultant.

Is the Lovaas Method Effective?

There are 40 years of research behind the Lovaas approach.  Even more, if you include the research into Skinner’s theories, on which it is based. In all of the research into outcomes, the primary directive is that progress must be attributable to the program and not some other variable. Another study point is whether the intervention lasts as the child ages. In addition, other studies must be able to replicate the findings of the Lovaas research.

The results of Lovaas’s studies yielded some favorable outcomes.  One of the most satisfactory outcomes of the Lovaas approach is that, by age seven, a sizable minority of children with autism and other pervasive developmental disorders are indistinguishable from their peers socially. They have mainstreamed back into the regular classroom where they perform at average levels on testing and assignments.

Much of Dr. Lovaas’ research helped create the foundation for the concept of ABA.   There is significant-high-quality research that shows ABA therapeutic approaches can result in positive outcomes for children.  Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) is a treatment approach based on ABA and the research of Dr. Lovaas at the UCLA Young Autism Project. Therapists use EIBI to help young children with developmental delays acquire functional and adaptive skills.  They work 1:1 with the child (usually under the age of five), for 30-40 hours per week, teaching them skills in small steps.  


Children on the autism spectrum vary in the severity of the condition. The same can be said of developmental delays. The ability of the therapist to structure his intervention to the needs and abilities of the child is an important characteristic of the approach. However, parental support and involvement are vital.

How do I Find a Therapist?

The therapy team using Lovaas method autism techniques must receive training from an experienced professional.  There are a few resources families and educators can use to find a therapist with knowledge and training in this specific area of ABA.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board maintains a directory of Board Certified Behavior Analysts. They have experience and training working with a variety of behavioral interventions including ABA.  Some of these therapists may specifically practice the Lovaas Method.  

In 2005 Dr. Lovaas retired from UCLA.  His staff from the Clinic for the Behavioral Treatment of Children opened The Lovaas Center in Las Vegas.  The Lovaas Center works in collaboration with other agencies to provide early intervention services to children and families.  They provide a comprehensive “wrap-around model” of treatment. Consultants train and supervise instructors who deliver the Lovaas therapy program in the least restrictive environment.  

The Lovaas Institute provides intensive ABA treatment services using the Lovass Approach to children in their offices. They also offer consultation services to families, creating their intervention programs.  

Conclusion: What is the Lovaas Method?

Therapists who work with young children on the autism spectrum may benefit from training in the Lovaas Method.  Parents and teachers should become familiar with the strengths and limitations of this training model.  They can then decide if the approach is best for their child. 

Early intervention strategies can have a positive impact on a child’s developmental path.  It is important to know what therapeutic options are available. In this way, families and educators can be competent and confident advocates for their children with autism and other developmental disorders.