Young boy with ASD smilingAbout Autism

The Impact of Autism on Learning

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that becomes noticeable during the first three years of life. The etiology, or cause, is unknown but a growing body of research points to physiological and neurological abnormalities. Autism is the second most frequently diagnosed disorder of childhood (Down's Syndrome is the first). It affects as many as 1 in 68 individuals and is four times more common in boys than in girls. Symptoms usually include failure to meet developmental milestones and/or loss of previously learned skills. Difficulties in development are often extensive, affecting functioning in cognitive, language, social, play, and adaptive skill areas. As a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) grows older, delays in these areas become more pronounced when compared to typically developing children of the same chronological age, making early intervention critical.

Efforts to teach children with ASD using traditional teaching methods are often unsuccessful. This is due to a variety of factors, primarily a lack of the fundamental skills necessary for success with traditional teaching methods. A few of these fundamental skills include the ability to sustain attention, make eye contact, and understand vocal language. Additionally, it is difficult to gain the participation of a child with ASD in the learning process, as they often prefer to isolate themselves from others and engage in repetitive, “non-purposeful” behaviors. These difficulties can lead both parent/teacher and child to develop a history of failure and frustration in the learning situation.

Much research has been devoted to identifying an effective teaching method for children with ASD. Early work in the 1960’s culminated in a study published in 1987 by Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, which documented a teaching approach based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The approach involved several components such as the use of intensive (40 hours per week), in-home, comprehensive, one-to-one, discrete-trial teaching methods along with parent involvement. The study found the approach to be effective in teaching children with ASD and resulted in normal functioning for some, and meaningful progress for most of the children who participated in the intervention.


Autistic boy in glassesABA

Applied Behavior Analysis

ABA is defined as the application of scientific principles of behavior (e.g., reinforcement) to improve socially significant behavior to a meaningful degree. ABA typically involves the manipulation of the events that precede (antecedents) and/or follow (consequences) the occurrence of a given behavior. Data collection is an integral component of any behavioral program. During treatment, data is collected on one or more dimensions of each targeted behavior (e.g., frequency, duration, latency, intensity, independence), and used to guide all treatment decisions. The efficacy of ABA procedures in the treatment of children with autism has been extensively studied and documented in peer-reviewed research literature over the past 40 years. ABA procedures have been found to effectively reduce challenging behaviors such as tantrums, aggression, stereotypy, and self-injurious behavior (SIB), as well as successfully increase adaptive behaviors including language and communication skills, play and leisure skills, socialization skills, theory of mind, pre-academic/academic skills, daily living/self-help skills, vocational skills, and fine and gross motor skills. ABA is currently the only autism therapy recommended for long-term benefit by the United States Surgeon General.

In 1987, Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas published his seminal research on the effects of early intensive behavioral intervention on young children with autism. He found that nearly half of the experimental group (47%), but almost none of the children in the matched control group achieved normal intellectual functioning and were able to participate in regular schooling (Lovaas, 1987). At follow up, McEachin, Smith, & Lovaas (1993) found that 8/9 children had maintained their gains. Lovaas’ findings have since been replicated on multiple occassions, continuing to support the efficicay of ABA in the treatment of children with autism.

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