Death of Ole Ivar Lovaas Saddens Autism Community

Fran Lowry

September 14, 2010

September 14, 2010 — The death of clinical psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, PhD, who was the first to use the principles of applied behavioral analysis to treat and ameliorate autism in children, has saddened the autism community.

Dr. Lovaas died August 2 in Lancaster, California, from an infection that developed after surgery for a broken hip, according to his son, Erik. He was 83 years old.

In 1987, Dr. Lovaas published a study entitled "Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children" (J Consult Clin Psychol. 551:3-9), showing that it was possible to train some children with autism to attain language skills, attend school, and catch up to their normal peers. These children could then go on to live normal lives, get married, and become full, contributing members to society.

Dr. Ivar Lovaas and wife Nina

At the time of his death, Dr. Lovaas, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 2 years ago, held the position of professor emeritus of learning and behavior in the Department of Psychology at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), where he had taught since 1961.

"Ivar was very robust, very involved with life, always," said Scott Wright, one of Dr. Lovaas' former graduate students who now is president and chief executive officer of the Lovaas Institute for Early Intervention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. There are a number of such institutes founded by Dr. Lovaas located throughout the United States.

Born in Norway in 1927, Dr. Lovaas grew up in the agricultural village of Lier, near Oslo. His father was a journalist, and young Ivar was a violinist. When Norway was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, the family was forced to work in the fields; life was hard.

Building and Refining Services

"They were very poor," Mr. Wright said. "He talked a lot about his mom and how she tried to make ends meet. All they had to eat was what they could grow. Ivar always used to half joke that the Nazis got him interested in studying human behavior. In fact, he attributed his life's work in applied behavior analysis into trying to figure out why something like the Holocaust could happen and why people could be like the Nazis."

He once told a newspaper reporter that if he had gotten his hands on Adolf Hitler before the age of 4 or 5, he could have turned him into a nice man and gotten him into UCLA.

"He once told a newspaper reporter that if he had gotten his hands on Adolf Hitler before the age of 4 or 5, he could have turned him into a nice man and gotten him into UCLA," Mr. Wright says wryly.

After the war, Dr. Lovaas got a music scholarship to go to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, to which he had applied because a friend was going there.

Dr. Lovaas was a great advocate for the view that children without autism learn communication and other skills and that children with autism can learn these skills too, given the same opportunities, said Tristram Smith, PhD, from the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester, New York.

"He was building and refining the services that he offered to the kids, and along the way, he had a number of breakthroughs," Dr. Smith told Medscape Medical News.

"He was really the first to demonstrate a way to get children with autism who were not speaking to start speaking," Dr. Smith said. "He developed a procedure for breaking down the process into very small steps. This involved teaching the kids to imitate actions and then gradually working towards having them imitate sounds and then putting sounds together and linking those sounds to actual objects or activity. He advocated providing 30 or 40 hours a week of individualized instruction to help the children model what other people were doing."

Dr. Smith was a graduate student and also did a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA and even collaborated with Dr. Lovaas on some projects.

"He definitely was a very inspirational person. He was very adept on keeping the focus on what was important. In graduate school, it is very easy to get sidetracked with some intellectual point or other, but Ivar always had his eye on the big picture, which was how can we help these kids live happier, more productive lives," Dr. Smith says. "He would say 'let's not worry about whether this or that nuance or some theory is correct, let's keep our focus on the basics and the most important thing.' "

Enormously Energetic

A hard worker, Dr. Lovaas expected his students to also be hard workers, Dr. Smith recalls.

"He was an enormously energetic person. He would never go into a meeting being complacent about some treatment plan we had in place or some research project we had going on. He would always be very animated and looking for ways to improve things and doing the best possible work. He was the kind of person who would cut his vacation short to get back to work."

Every so often, a graduate student would get sick and land in the hospital. Dr. Lovaas would visit the student and give a great pep talk, but he would also bring work to the student/patient, Dr. Smith remembers. "He thought work was an important part of our lives, and not something you do 8 hours a day. So whether it was the weekend or you were in the hospital or actually physically in your office, he felt we had a mission to blaze a trail and change preconceptions about the extent to which children who were born with autism could actually change."

In the 1960s, when Dr. Lovaas began his work with children who had autism, the established thinking was that these children needed to be hospitalized. His work revolutionized that thinking, so that now many children with autism can go to their neighborhood schools, make friends, and be full members of their family, Dr. Smith noted.

Jacqui Wynn, PhD, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Nationwide Childrens Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, is another of Dr. Lovaas' graduate students who was inspired to continue his work in children with autism. She worked with Dr. Lovaas starting in 1988 as his graduate student, and later as the first director of the Lovaas Institute.

He gave hope and opportunities to children and families who really had no hope or opportunities before him.

"Ivar clearly shaped my life, and he shaped the life of so many people," Dr. Wynn says. "More importantly, he gave hope and opportunities to children and families who really had no hope or opportunities before him. It was all based on Ivar believing what at the time was thought to be impossible — that these kids could learn and change and lead normal lives. He stuck with that belief doggedly."

Not everyone was convinced by his findings, but he was never swayed by negative opinion, said Dr. Wynn.

"Even when he published his findings that showed that these things were indeed possible, some people wouldn't believe him and criticized his work and picked it apart. He really fought hard to help everybody, even skeptics, understand the potential of these kids."

Dr. Wynn, too, recalls Dr. Lovaas' energy: "He was very driven, very committed to his ideas in the face of any objections from anybody. He didn't worry about criticism or the normal way of thinking about things. If he believed something, he was going to go with it and try it and test it. He had a very strong belief in science and its power."

She continues: "He was charming. He was very energetic. He lived life to the fullest. He taught me and my husband to ski when he was 72 years old by taking us to the top of a major mountain in Sun Valley and getting us down alive. He was an amazingly giving person, and he really gave to the families."

Mr. Wright agrees: "He was very vibrant almost his entire life, except for the Alzheimer's in his final years. But as long as he could, he cross-country skied and was a great outdoorsman. And he's famous for that giant smile that just lights up any room. He was always interested in family life and camping trips. He would always ask me about my family and my activities. He was generally interested. It always struck me that here's this great man, and he wants to know how toilet training is going with my kid. He was the most important person in my life, apart from my family."

Dr. Lovaas' classes in psychology were legendary. In particular, his Psychology 170A: Behavior Modification, was extremely popular among undergraduates, recalled Mr. Wright.

"He was an absolutely brilliant researcher. He was a very popular professor at UCLA. I took classes with him back in 1987. It was the class that I learned the most in, and also the class that I laughed the most in. It was the best class I ever took in my entire life."


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