Important Contributions to Special Education: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

By Jason Gross

Even for the most supportive parents, a child with autism presents a distinct challenge.  Though various special education and training programs have been developed over the past several decades to aide children with autism, one of the most well-known programs remains the A.B.A (Applied Behavioral Analysis) method developed by O. Ivar Lovaas. One way to think of ABA is as an individualized behavioral modification program, guided by positive reinforcements.

Development of ABA

Lovaas was born in Norway in 1927 and moved to the States to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Iowa’s Luther College (1951) and his doctorate in psychology at the University of Washington (1958). Lovaas began developing the ABA method through psychology studies in the late 1950’s which relied on behavioral modification and one-on-one treatment for patients.  Though this included controversial methods like shock treatment to discourage adverse behavior and starting and stopping the treatment at intervals, Lovaas also developed his method to include positive reinforcement for desired behavior, rewarding subjects with a snack, a toy or book and tasks were broken down into a series of steps so that the patient would learn a desired skill through a regimented process.  As part of the program, socialization with other autistic children and a generalized school population is also gradually integrated as part of the program to help the child progress and mature.

Impact on Special Education

Through decades of research and studies, the ABA method has become one of the premier methods used to work with autistic children, with the emphasis on beginning the program at an early (pre-school) age. While some studies have shown remarkable results with using the ABA method, there have been lingering questions about the conclusiveness of some of the studies that tout the method, insisting that a wider range of subjects is needed.

Personalization

One of the most important part of the ABA method is that it is personalized for each individual students based on their needs and abilities.  ABA is specifically tailored to each client, so it  can cover any activity, skill, or behavior that exists. The goals change and evolve as the skills are mastered.

ONEder advisory board member Melanie Johnston, M.A was a student of Dr. Lovaas in the 1980s, providing ABA Therapy.  In addition to being an IBCCES Certified Autism Specialist, she has spent the past three decades working as an Autism/Behavior Specialists in public and private school settings.  Currently, she serves as Executive Director of BRITE Success, which supplies specialized training services and programs for teachers and families to help children with disabilities.

Jason writes for the Village Voice and Time Out, among other publications.

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