Recognition of autism in children has grown alarmingly in recent years, but its diagnosis and definition remain uncertain. The American psychologist Dr Ole Ivar Lovaas acknowledged the difficulty in identifying a cause, or a cure, for autism but insisted that it could be treated. Lovaas's approach, first published in 1987, suggested that autism might be ameliorated through an intensive one-to-one regime of behaviour modification. Although it drew criticism, the Lovaas approach has proved fundamentally influential.
Lovaas was born in Lier, near Oslo, the Norwegian capital, where his father was a journalist. The family suffered under Nazi occupation but young Ivar won a music scholarship at a college in Iowa in the United States. In 1958, he was awarded a PhD in psychology by the University of Washington. While undertaking post-doctoral work in the university's Child Development Institute, Lovaas observed: "All the children appeared happy and normal except for a girl who did not make eye contact, did not talk or play with toys, spending the day rocking her body and flapping her hands, and behaved as if others were not present."
Thus began his search for effective treatment for autism. In 1961, he joined the psychology department of the University of California, Los Angeles. The gist of Lovaas's programme was between two and three years of intensive behavioural treatment for children with autism for 40 hours per week. Nine of 19 treated children demonstrated increased IQ scores and were integrated into their local schools.
In the early years of the programme, in the mid-Sixties, punishment for inappropriate behaviour was as important as reward for good behaviour. In extreme cases, electrodes were attached to patients and shocks administered. Although his seminal paper was not published until 1987, Life magazine brought Lovaas's groundbreaking methods to public attention in a striking, but essentially positive, piece in 1965, headlined "Screams, Slaps and Love". Over time, though, all punishment was eliminated and only positive reinforcement used. In 1995, Lovaas established the Lovaas Institute in Los Angeles. Today, his method is applied throughout the world. Dr Lovaas is survived by his second wife and three daughters and a son from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
Ivar Lovaas was born on May 8, 1927, and died on August 2, 2010, aged 83. * The National