LOVAAS PROGRAM & DISCRETE
Discrete Trials were originally used in experimental
studies with animals to demonstrate how learning was influenced
by rates of reinforcement. The Lovaas program was developed by Ivaar
Lovaas at the University of California and adapted as a therapy
for developmentally delayed children and children with Autism.
Ivar Lovaas has used discrete training trials to help children learn
skills ranging from making eye contact and following simple instructions,
to developing advanced language and social skills.
Discrete training trials are based on the principles
Behavior Analysis - children will be more likely to adopt behaviors
when rewarded, and are less likely to adopt inappropriate behaviors
for which they receive no reward or possibly a negative outcome.
Lovaas programs are only run by practitioners who have been trained
by the Lovaas Institute. The program is highly intensive with 40
hours or more spent each week with children on the autism spectrum.
why discrete trials suit autism spectrum disorders
Autistic children usually face difficulties in
learning. Discrete trials involves breaking behaviors into the smallest
functional units and presenting them in a series. Discrete trials
are particularly suited in the context of Autism
and Asperger's because:
• The trials are brief and suit short attention
• Discrete trials build motivation through positive reinforcement
• A proper program helps a child to generalize learned skills to
other areas of life
• Instructions are concrete, concise and without background 'clutter'
( i.e. a noisy classroom).
Ideally intervention is started early when the
child is two to three years old and parents are involved to apply
the same techniques consistently with their child. The first stage
of the program uses Discrete Training Trials to concentrate on:
• Self-help and receptive language skills
• Nonverbal and verbal imitation
• Appropriate play.
The second stage of the Lovaas program concentrates
on expressive language and interactive play with peers. The final
stage focuses on:
• Academic tasks
• Socialization skills
• Cause-effect relationships
• Learning by observation.
Inappropriate behaviors such as violence, screaming,
behaviors are managed by ignoring,
time-out, shaping and the delivery of a loud "no" or slap
on the thigh. The early Lovaas programs attracted negative publicity
for their use of "aversives" such as striking, shouting
"No!" at the child, or using electroshocks. These procedures
have been widely abandoned for over a decade and the focus is now
mainly on positive reinforcement.
'ABC' basis of Discrete Trial Training
Discrete trial training takes a task or process
a child needs to learn and breaks it down into small discrete steps
which can be taught in a graduated way. Discrete trial training
normally occurs on-on-one with the therapist or parent prompting
the child to do a specific action and rewarding success with positive
reinforcement. This is based on the ABC model:
A - Antecedent
A directive or request for the child to perform an action.
B - Behavior
A behavior, or response from the child - successful performance,
noncompliance, or no response.
C - Consequence
A consequence, defined as the reaction from the therapist, which
can range from strong positive reinforcement (ie. a special treat,
verbal praise) to a strong negative response, “No!”
Discrete Training Trials are highly structured with the choice of
stimuli, the criteria for the target response, and the type of reinforcement
which is to be provided all clearly defined before each trial commences.
Only the child's correct responses are reinforced whereas incorrect
or off-task behaviors are ignored (Schreibman, Kaneko, & Koegel,
Wetherby and Prizant (2000) noted that the initial
focus is on adult control and child compliance. Despite the frequent
use of verbal prompts, teaching is usually conducted with minimal
contextual supports in an effort to encourage the child to develop
comprehension of the adult’s spoken language (Wetherby & Prizant,
How discrete trials work
The components of a discrete trial are as follows:
• Instruction (generally a command or request,
but it may also be a visual stimulus)
• Prompt (assistance given to promote a correct
response, it may not occur in all trials)
• The child's response
• Feedback or other consequences (most commonly
rewards and/or praise)
• Interval (a few seconds between trials for the
child to process information).
Discrete trials can be used to develop most skills,
which includes cognitive, verbal communication, play, social and
self-help skills. A basic example might be for Suzie to brush her
hair. The first step may be simply to pick up the brush.
Therapist: “Suzie, pick up the brush”.
The therapist takes Suzie's hand and wraps it around the brush.
After a short interval, the therapist says “Suzie, pick up the brush”
again. Suzie does not respond so the therapist wraps Suzie's hand
around the brush again. On the third time, Suzie makes a tentative
move for the brush but the therapist still needs to wrap her hand
around the brush. "That's a good try, Suzie." On the fourth
time, Suzie grabs the brush. "That's really good, Suzie!"
The therapist gives Suzie a muesli bar.
different ways to prompt
A prompt helps a child to do the desired behavior
after the instruction has been given. A common problem is that a
child may become overly reliant on these prompts, so it should be
phased out quickly once the child is able to do the desired behavior.
Prompts can take various forms. Using the above examples, some prompts
• Verbal ("Reach your hand out to the brush,
• Modeling (Grab the brush yourself and hope Suzie
will copy this)
Physical prompting (guiding Suzie's hand to the
• Gesture (pointing at the brush).
what if discrete trials are too expensive?
Although discrete trials, and its closely related
cousin, Applied Behavior Analysis, are very effective for autistic
children, they are also notoriously expensive. The therapists need
to be highly trained and experienced, and they may spend between
20 to 40 hours with only one child at at time.
This not only puts this therapy out of most parents'
range, but induces guilt as parents may feel they are neglecting
their autistic child unless they sell the family home to pay for
therapy. Get in touch with your nearest Autism Association to see
what options are available in your area, and at what cost.
Demand for behavioral specialists who conduct
Discrete Trials is strong, and the lack of supply has encouraged
people with lack of qualifications and experience to fill the gap.
Check the credentials of any specialists who will work with your
There are also other types of early intervention
that can be highly effective, such as Applied
Behavior Analysis which has a common foundation with the Lovaas
program. See the Behavior
& Life Skills page for tips on developing programs you can
implement at home.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and Autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
to read about Applied Behavior Analysis
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the