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Univ. of Minnesota Student - "Recovered" via Lovaas ABA?

This is not my usual post -- but I received my Univ. of Minnesota Alumni Magazine today and am annoyed.

My Ph.D. is from Minnesota, and it is no secret I do not like the institution. My bias definitely affects my general attitude when reading anything linked to UMN. That out of the way…

And although Lovaas later refined his therapy, eliminating the use of shock and physical punishments to develop what is now known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)—the treatment that helped Joe Mohs—his reputation was irreparably damaged by the article, which critics of ABA still cite when decrying the treatment as cruel.

I dislike how many therapists approach ABA-based therapies. I've seen therapy sessions that drag on for hours. I consider that cruel, simply because who wouldn't cave to demands after hours? I associate it with an interrogation technique. Repeat again and again, "I saw Martians." Eventually, you cave, like Orwell's Winston Smith in 1984.

The professors at Minnesota are also believers in the pollution, environmental toxin theory:

Eric Larsson, an adjunct psychology professor at the University, is in the former camp. “Visit any school and it’s obvious that there are many more children these days with major language disorders and severe impairments than there used to be,” he says. “I believe that compares directly with the rise in pollution.”

Maybe that is true. I don't know and even suspect there might be triggers for some autistic traits. However, I would be careful as a Ph.D. since people take minor statements and make them matters of faith.

Yes, the Minnesota professor even considers vaccines a possible trigger:

Perhaps, Larsson and others say, children who are genetically predisposed to autism or have already been exposed to too much mercury are “pushed over the edge” neurologically when mercury enters their system. Bob Mohs believes this may have been the case with Joe, since he seemed to become more withdrawn after his vaccinations.

Sorry, but that line of reasoning troubles me coming from an R1 researcher. Maybe he was interviewed before Wakefield was stripped of his medical board standing in the U.K.

The position of these experts is that ABA should be the endless hours of "treatment" I have witnessed.

While studies show 45 percent to 50 percent of autistic children who receive ABA therapy overcome their symptoms sufficiently to function independently in school, this level of benefit is greater for children who receive ABA services in the intensive way Lovaas intended.

I don't know how to react to that. The article claims a 45% success rate for Lovaas, which is much higher than I have seen mentioned elsewhere. Some improvement is likely, but how much? The claim seems miraculous, which I know many ABA proponents claim. I just haven't seen such success rates. Some success? Definitely. But could the same results be done with fewer hours of better therapies? Of course, we don't know what "better" is, but I hope we find something that doesn't require eight to ten hours a day with a therapist. (An hour with a therapist tries my patience -- never intend to see another one.)

“If a child doesn’t touch people, you reach out and take his hand and touch it and praise that, and you might spend weeks doing one thing.”

I still dislike my reading and speech therapists from 1975 or so. I'm not about to endorse weeks of making someone sensitive to touch endure "sensory therapy" for weeks. My reaction is biased, I admit. Maybe ABA is great for some people. I still dislike it almost instinctively. Desensitizing someone isn't really "curing" -- it's masking whatever the real issues are. That worries me. I don't like how closely this resembles animal training. Command, reward, repeat.

And yes, I felt that some faculty at Minnesota treated me like I was less than human. I felt they did not respect my differences and were uncomfortable with anything I might want out of the ordinary. I'm told it's because in Minnesota, all the children are above average (nod to Garrison Keillor).


  1. Mine lasted from Oct to May before he clawed his male T. Personally, the guy had it coming and to this day it is the only excessive behaviour issue we've ever had. It took us to Aug to get rid of them from our house. The teacher tossed them 6 weeks into school.

    It was the "Lovaas", less the physical punishment but the HOURS of unending descrete trials and give a kid a toy for 30 sec and make him do it again, toy 30 sec....

    I don't know who was more upset when we got rid of them... me or the kid... It took me a ver long time to stop shaking everytime I thought about it...

    I would never recommend it. And even lobbied against bill C-360 to force the Fed's to pay for it across Canada last spring.

  2. People forget Lovaas originally wanted to "cure" effeminate boys. Then again, one more reason for me to dislike anything associated with his name, since I am wimpy geek with a sense of style and love for show tunes.

  3. Hey there,

    I occasionally drop by the MOM-NOS blog and saw your note. I linked over and couldn't resist commenting. Particularly since I'm a wimpy geek with a modest sense of style and a total love of show tunes (serious gleek). A friend of mine and I knew Little Shop of Horrors by heart.

    I'm a father of 4 year old twins, one on the spectrum and the second with some developmental delays (social skills, paired with advanced reading and math). I'm looking forward to getting to know your blog.


    Paul aka The Fairlington Blade

    [I live in Fairlington, VA and support Sheffield United--the Blades.]


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