Home > Autism in the News > In Memoriam: Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas (1927-2010)

In Memoriam: Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas (1927-2010)

From left to right: Dr. Lovaas, Nina Lovaas, Gary Mayerson

Editor’s note: On August 2, 2010, Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas passed away. We sincerely thank Dr. Lovaas for all of his contributions to the autism community.

In 1981, with the publication of Dr. Lovaas’ pioneering work, Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children (popularly known as “The ME Book”), the landscape of the world of autism was quite different than it is today.  In 1981, the prevalence of autism in the general population was reported to be only 4 in 10,000, hardly the 1 in 100 world epidemic that autism represents today.  While considered a relative rarity at the time, a diagnosis of autism in the 1960’s and 1970’s was considered by most  to be the beginning of a countdown to institutional care.  To add insult to injury, Bruno Bettelheim and others were disseminating and perpetuating the notion that autism was caused by cold and unfeeling “refrigerator mothers” and other forms of inadequate parenting.  For much of the latter part of the last century, families of children with autism had little, if anything, to hope for.

Dr. Lovaas, who had already been working with children with autism for decades, knew better.  Dr. Lovaas knew instinctively that poor parenting was not to blame. However, finding the root cause of autism was not Dr. Lovaas’ chosen mission. Instead, Dr. Lovaas focused his energy and attention on developing effective teaching strategies. Dr. Lovaas believed that children with autism could “learn to learn.” Back in the day, this was considered by many to be an unreachable star.

Just as Thomas Edison’s numerous lightbulb failures paved the way for Edison’s ultimate success, Dr. Lovaas painstakingly identified the “serious mistakes” that he and his colleagues at UCLA had made over the course of two decades in attempting to teach children with autism and other severe developmental disabilities.  Dr. Lovaas knew that the first step to finding an effective, core intervention would be to identify and eliminate the various approaches and strategies that had been tried, but which were demonstrably ineffective. Dr. Lovaas then worked tirelessly to break down the large and general problem of “disability” into manageable and separate behavioral units. Through years of trials, Dr. Lovaas further refined his behavior modification techniques and approaches. Over time, Dr. Lovaas’ work in the field became recognized to the point that for many, “Lovaas” became synonomous with the term “Applied Behavior Analysis.”

During the 1980’s, Dr. Lovaas and his colleagues at the UCLA Young Autism Project further refined their behavioral approaches, and they were fortunate enough to receive an important grant from the NIH allowing a most unusual and intensive approach that had never before been attempted—a forty hour per week one-to-one teaching program. In 1987, the results of Dr. Lovaas’ study, entitled Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children, were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, a respected peer review journal.

While there certainly was some controversy over the precise “design” of Dr. Lovaas’ study, there had never before been a study reporting such a favorable outcome—many of the students who had been receiving a 40 hour per week intervention program for approximately 2-3 years had recovered function to the point that they were considered virtually indistinguishable from their typically developing peers. A 1993 follow-up study appearing in the American Journal on Mental Retardation confirmed that some six years later, all but one of the children in the “best outcome” group had retained the gains reported in the 1987 study. In 1998, the Surgeon General’s Report on Autism referred to Dr. Lovaas’ 1987 study as a “well designed study” that “….demonstrated the efficacy of applied behavioral methods [ABA] in reducing inappropriate behavior and in increasing communication.”  Vindication!

In 2002, Dr. Lovaas  asked me to write a chapter on ABA litigation for his then upcoming update to The ME Book, Teaching Individuals With Developmental Delays (Pro-Ed). Dr. Lovaas told me in the charming Norwegian accent that he never seemed to lose despite living in this country for many decades that his greatest wish was that every parent, whether residing in California, New York or Alaska, would  have access to effective autism treatments. Dr. Lovaas regularly spoke of the need for insurance reform, as he  knew full well the devastating impact  autism can have upon the family.  The dedication appearing in Dr. Lovaas’ latest book speaks volumes as to his empathy and compassion for the family: “This manual is dedicated to all parents of children with developmental delays in recognition of the heavy burdens they carry, and the models they provide for all parents to follow.”

I last sat with Dr. Lovaas and his lovely wife, Nina, at the Autism Speaks’ benefit concert in Los Angeles, headlined by Paul Simon and Jerry Seinfeld. Dr. Lovaas was truly pleased to see how far public awareness of autism had come. He also has a special appreciation for Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes, ostensibly  because so many of them are based on the nuances of human behavior.

Dr. Lovaas’ pioneering work has not only helped, but has profoundly changed the lives and futures of thousands of affected children and their families. Dr. Lovaas’ work continues to have a profound impact on the professional development of today’s autism professionals. Perhaps most importantly, where once there was darkness, Dr. Lovaas brought light and genuine hope.

The autism community clearly has lost a giant.

This guest post is by Gary Mayerson. He serves on the board of Autism Speaks and is the founder of Mayerson & Associates, the first law firm in the nation dedicated to representing children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.


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  1. August 5, 2010 at 11:15 am

    My heartfelt sympathy goes out to Dr. Lovaas’ family during this time of sorrow. I will be forever thankful and grateful to Dr. Lovaas for his tireless work in the field of Autism. As a special education teacher of children with Autism I am grateful for his work and studies. We have gained minimal ground in servicing young children with autism, and have so far to go to get insurance for the family so that they can be less burdened with the high cost of therapies. Thank you again for paving the way.

  2. Dadvocate
    August 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Without Dr. Lovaas’ inspired and groundbreaking work, I strongly believe that my son and countless others could not have developed the ability to communicate verbally. While ABA and it’s variants don’t result in improved outcomes 100% of the time, for so many the therapy is a “game changer” and can mean the difference between verbal and non-verbal outcomes. Let’s not let up on the push for 100% insurance coverage. Even if your state has an insurance bill, it probably has a lot of carve outs and exemptions denying many the option of ABA. Every child deserves access. I for one will always remain profoundly grateful for the work and dedication of Dr. Lovaas.

  3. miriam nockenofsky
    August 5, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    i am so grateful to dr lovaas for his unbelievable work, for his help and his wisdom in helping children. i have two autistic children and without dr lovaaas and his great work i would have never made it. the inspiration and strenght that he instileed in me made me realize that i could work with my children and because of him both of my kids who were severely autistic are now high functioning aspergers. dr lovaas and his work with ABA is a g-d send for our kids and i have the utmost appreciation for him i know that he will have a special place up in heaven for g-d is def. proud of him. thank you dr lovaas for all your dedication, care and devotion in helping special needs people.

  4. Noreen
    August 5, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    We, especially the MOMS, are so happy that Dr. Lovaas didn’t buy the bogus refrigerator theory. He was “A Great Man” to all mothers of disabled children but more specifically for the children who would have been looked at with sympathy or just completely ignored. Our son was in a very bad place and it was impossible to pull him out…without ABA. I remember seeing this and thinking “You’ve got to be kidding me?” I am so thankful to this man (God Bless Him, his Mama and Daddy). Truly a wonderful teacher, a creative thinker and just a persistent person (like many of our kids :) Thank you God for giving us Dr. Lovaas :) I will pray for him and his family this month of August. I Can’t Thank Him Enough :)!! Love, Love, Love

  5. mary kate sparks
    August 5, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Thank you Dr. Lovaas for all you’ve done for the child affected with Autism. You gave us hope were others did not. <3 Forever grateful

  6. Marjorie Madfis
    August 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    I am grateful to Dr. Lovaas for his ABA method. Without it, Isabelle would never have learned to speak, to be social or be independent. She is now 14 and partially mainstreamed for academics and specials (with modifications). She is engaged and happy. But when she was 18 months she could not even pay enough attention to the speech therapist to benefit from the sessions. Not until ABA was used – and she was a star pupil of it – did she finally benefit from any other therapy.

    We must honor his memory and contribution by making sure insurance companies recognize this proven therapy and cover it as they do any other conventional therapy for a disorder.

  7. Sridhar Aravamudhan
    August 6, 2010 at 12:07 am

    If my autistic daughter has learnt to learn it is in no small measure thanks to Dr. Lovaas’s pioneering work on teaching methods for autistic children back then Autism had not yet assumed epidemic proportions. It was a labour of love and though many scholars seriously tried to discredit the methodologies in the early days it is credit to his passion that the methodologies adapted to greater expectations, newer research and learning. For all those who have been in some way touched by him in some way, the way we can express our gratitude is by working towards making ABA affordable to every one. If Ford could do that for cars, we can surely do it for ABA.
    May his soul rest in peace and may his spirit live and energise all those who are working in this field.
    Sridhar Aravamudhan
    Bengaluru, India

  8. Susan Selim
    August 6, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Without Dr Lovaas’ pioneering work and the support we received from people who studied with him at UCLA, my oldest son and daughter would still be nearly non-verbal and unable to play, interact, and express their emotions and needs. Instead, Matthew, Emily, and Jared (7,8 and 10) are now loving, playful, talkative children, and learning more and more each day. Our family is still affected by autism, but no longer ruled by it. My profound gratitude to the Lovaas family for giving hope to so many families like ours. I hope for the day in which access to these life-saving treatments are available and affordable to all who need them without the overwhelming financial sacrifice we made. We would do it all again.

    May he rest in peace knowing the difference he made in so many lives.

  9. Kathy Deery Ford
    August 6, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I am forever grateful to Dr. Lovaas. My daughter came back to us with the help of ABA. She is now hardly distinguishable from her classmates but that would have never happened without receiving 20+hours of ABA when she was two and three. I believed in his work 110%. ABA was the course of action my husband and I knew could help our daughter

    Dr. Lovaas really made a difference and his legacy will live on with the countless amounts of children that will benefit from his teachings.

    RIP

  10. Barbara Laman
    August 6, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I will always be grateful to Dr. Lovaas for bringing science to the treatment of autism. It has been an uphill battle but he gave all of us hope so that we could persist. My son would not be the same person without the work of Dr. Lovaas. My deepest sympathy to his family. You should be very proud!!

  11. jenna K
    August 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    I am so thankful for Dr. Lovaas. My son is doing so well because of ABA. I don’t think we’d have come this far without Dr. Lovaas dedication and ground breaking research. I’m so grateful to him and my son is here and present because of him. I am forever grateful…and many thanks!
    Jenna

  12. Kathy Freeman
    August 8, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Thank you, Dr. Lovaas, for paving the way to great things happening for people on the spectrum. So many will be forever thankful! RIP

  13. Claudia Rice
    August 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    I am so grateful to Dr. Lovaas. My daughter developed to a point, then she stopped and was just “spinning her wheels” so to speak. She was very frustrated. the ABA therapy that Dr. Lovaas developed brought her out of this and she is HF Autism/Aspergers. I feel sure she would be functioning at a much lower level had we not had this method to teach her how to get “unstuck.” It really worked for her and I have seen it work for so many others too.

  14. Renata Irving
    September 1, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    October, 1994, my son said his name for the first time. He was 5 yrs.old.
    Louise,a college student, had asked me if I had heard about Dr.Lovaas and
    his work.She worked with my son for hours,keeping notebooks,always having hope.
    He was integrated with peers and an aide in school. He was in the 5th grade and junior high bands,he performed in auditoriums seating 700 people. He went to prom.
    He shaves. He makes eggplant parmesan. He says “I love you,too.”
    Dr. Lovaas and Louise–forever in my heart.

  15. Tyler
    March 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Wonderful guy really. Also tried to cure the “evil” of potential homosexuality in a four year old. He later committed suicide. In this slightly more enlightened time his treatment of homosexuals would be seen as deplorable, and yet we let him work on the Autistic. In defense he may not even have a problem with gays somebody just paid him to try to cure the “problem” and he took the money.

  1. August 5, 2010 at 2:03 pm

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