What is the Lovaas Program?
The Lovaas Program uses techniques that focus on breaking complex tasks into smaller, more achievable steps. As children learn each step, they get praise and rewards. Challenging behaviour is ignored when it happens.
The Lovaas Program is based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).
Other common names for the Lovaas Program include the UCLA Young Autism Project.
Who is the Lovaas Program for?
The Lovaas Program is used for autistic preschoolers. Children can take part in this therapy until they reach school age. The Program can be slightly modified for children who are already at school.
What is the Lovaas Program used for?
The Lovaas Program is used to teach and encourage skills like language use and social skills. It can also help to reduce challenging behaviour.
Supporters of the Lovaas Program suggest that it results in:
- reduced self-stimulatory behaviour
- improved language skills – for example, increased verbal communication and vocabulary
- increased emotional attachment to others
- increased IQ
- reduced need for support in the classroom.
ABA and the Lovaas Program can help autistic children develop independence, but these approaches shouldn’t be used to make children ‘mask’ their autism or ‘fit in’ with social norms.
Where does the Lovaas Program come from?
The Lovaas Program was developed in the early 1980s at the University of California in the United States as part of a research project focusing on young autistic people. It’s named after the researcher, Ivar Lovaas. It was originally known as the UCLA Young Autism Project model.
What is the idea behind the Lovaas Program?
The Lovaas Program is based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and the idea that skills can be taught in a systematic way to encourage new behaviour. As children get better at a skill, they feel encouraged and use the skill more often.
What does the Lovaas Program involve?
The Lovaas Program takes a lot of time and involves planned sessions where children are taught skills.
For the youngest children, the first year of the Lovaas Program involves therapists working with children at home for at least 40 hours per week. These sessions focus on helping children learn basic skills for learning – for example, following simple instructions and imitation. They also focus on reducing behaviour that gets in the way of learning – for example, aggressive behaviour.
In later years children learn more complex skills, including verbal communication, interactive play and cooperation, reading and writing. They learn these skills in settings other than the home – for example, at preschool. The intensity of the Program is gradually reduced.
ABA programs like the Lovaas Program should recognise autistic children’s right to stim or move in ways that are physically comfortable. They should involve free time, relaxing activities and opportunities for children to have their emotional needs met. ABA programs shouldn’t involve punishment.
Does the Lovaas Program help autistic children?
The Lovaas Program is based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which is an effective approach for helping autistic children learn skills. Quality research shows that ABA can have positive effects on autistic children’s communication, cognitive and behaviour skills.
There’s variation in how ABA is used, however. To judge the effectiveness of the specific programs that you’re interested in, you might need to ask about their past outcomes.
There’s also some controversy about ABA-based programs like the Lovaas Program:
- Some autistic people say that ABA is based on the idea that autistic children should behave the same as typically developing children. They say that this idea doesn’t respect neurodiversity. That is, it doesn’t accept and respect natural differences in how people’s brains work and how they understand and interact with the world.
- Some autistic people feel that ABA programs sometimes aim to stop behaviour like flapping or stimming, which can be calming or enjoyable for autistic people.
- ABA programs can involve many hours of repetitive, one-to-one therapy each day and week. This intensity is an essential aspect of ABA, but it might be a concern for children.
- Some autistic people say ABA is harmful because it doesn’t put autistic children’s wellbeing first.
- In the past, ABA programs used punishment to stop challenging behaviour, although this seems to be less common with modern ABA.
Who practises the Lovaas Program?
Practitioners can include trained therapists, teachers, volunteers and parents. It’s important to note that professionals using the Lovaas Program must have appropriate training. This can sometimes make it difficult to find suitably qualified therapists.
Where can you find a practitioner?
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board has a list of certified behaviour analysts, some of whom might practise the Lovaas Program.
You can find other professionals by going to:
- Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist
- Occupational Therapy Australia – Find an occupational therapist
- Speech Pathology Australia – Find a speech pathologist.
If you’re interested in the Lovaas Program, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your GP or one of the other professionals working with your child. You could also talk about it with your NDIA planner, early childhood partner or local area coordinator (LAC), if you have one.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is taking part in the Lovaas Program, you manage the intervention with therapist training and support. You’re trained to apply the techniques at home, so you can use them during most of the time your child is awake. You might get some help from paid aides, because the therapy is so intensive.
Costs depend on how the Lovaas Program is used, and this can vary widely. The therapy team might include different kinds of people (professionals, paid aides, volunteers) working in many different settings. Also, the Program takes a lot of time and needs a lot of input from therapists and family members, which can increase costs.
Therapies and supports for autistic children range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medicines and alternative therapies. When you understand the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.