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ABA Therapy

The History Of Autism Treatment And ABA Therapy

A well-trained eye can spot autism throughout history. But the term autism didn’t exist until 1908 when it was coined by a man named Eugen Bleuler. Bleuler used the term to describe the withdrawn behavior he observed in patients with schizophrenia. It wasn’t until the late 1930s and early 1940s that the word autism was used to describe people with signs and symptoms that match our modern-day diagnostic criteria for autism.

In those early days, autism was poorly understood and often confused with other types of neurodivergence. Some professionals of the era attempted to treat children with autism using talk therapy and other ill-suited psychotherapeutic approaches. Nonverbal children or adults were sent to institutions or faced other grim futures.

The Early Days of ABA Therapy

Thankfully, our understanding of autism improved significantly in the 1960s and 1970s. Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas, a behavioral psychologist at UCLA, began studying autism in earnest around this time. He conducted his first study in 1973. Twenty children with severe autism underwent 14 months of an early version of ABA therapy. Lovaas observed that many of the children’s behaviors, such as speech, play, and social skills, improved. Lovaas did not continue treatment himself past the end of the study, but he followed up with study participants in the following years. He reported better long-term results in children whose parents continued therapy at home.

In 1987, Lovaas conducted a second study of ABA therapy, with two groups:

  • A control group of 19 children with autism who received 10 hours of ABA therapy per week.

  • A study group of 19 children with autism who received 40 hours of one-on-one ABA therapy per week.

Lovaas reported that 47% of the children who received more hours of ABA treatment generally performed better in classroom settings. The children’s IQ scores were tested before and after the experiment, and a higher IQ was observed in many of the children in the study group. Lovaas did a follow-up study six years later and reported that many of these changes were long-lasting.

The Evolution of ABA Treatment

Like many treatments and therapies, ABA therapy has improved over time. Many of Lovaas’s principles provided a strong foundation for ABA therapy today, but his original methodologies were not above reproach. Early versions of ABA treatment were needlessly harsh, utilizing shouting, slapping, and other punitive measures that are no longer practiced—or tolerated—by modern-day autism treatment professionals. These days, ABA therapy is centered on positive reinforcement, constructive teaching, and genuine compassion for the child receiving autism treatment.

Early ABA treatments were fairly repetitive and generic. In the decades since Lovaas’s studies, autism therapy professionals have made dramatic improvements to his original methods. As a result, modern-day ABA therapy is highly customizable to suit the needs and treatment goals of each child. Our understanding of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors has also evolved to become less binary and more of a spectrum, which allows for more compassion and nuance in a personalized autism treatment plan.

Today’s autism treatment professionals are required to undergo significantly more education and training than their peers of previous decades. Board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) must have a master’s degree or higher in behavior analysis and supervised practical experience before they’re even eligible to take the BCBA exam. BCBAs must get recertified every two years and participate in regular continuing education.

Registered behavior technicians (RBTs) are required to complete at least 40 hours of training and pass a rigorous exam to receive their credentials. RBTs work under direct supervision from a BCBA roughly 10% of the time and have to pass a competency exam every year to maintain their status.

Additionally, both BCBAs and RBTs must comply with a strict code of ethics.

Applied ABC is dedicated to the continuous improvement of ABA therapy and increasingly better treatments for children with autism. To learn more about our approach, get in touch with our team >

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