Five years from now, I think I will still remember learning about how autism symptoms can be completely eliminated from children through the use of operant conditioning. The concept of operant conditioning seems very basic and intuitive, but the fact that it can be used to transform severely autistic children into normally functioning children is amazing. The treatment works like this: normal behaviors, such as talking, sitting still, making eye contact, and grooming oneself are reinforced with a reward in the form of something the child likes. Behaviors characteristic of autism, such as throwing tantrums, self-stimulation, and repetitive movements are ignored and not rewarded, eventually leading to their extinguishment.
This kind of treatment, pioneered by Ivar Lovaas in 1987, is called applied behavior analysis (ABA). In the original study, a group of children received 40 hours of intense ABA therapy per week and were followed up years later when they were in high school. The children were indistinguishable from their peers, and some of them were even in advanced classes and were planning on attending college. This most likely would not have been possible had they not gone through the treatment program. The fact that ABA is still used today as a form of therapy shows how successful the treatment has been. Here are just a few companies that advertise ABA treatment: AIM, Maximum Potential Kids, and Maxim Healthcare Services.