The ESDM for Young Children with Autism
Promoting Language, Learning, and Engagement
The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is a manualised, evidence-based early intervention method that seeks to empower young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to become active participants in the social world around them. The model incorporates a comprehensive curriculum and a set of teaching principles, informed by current developmental research and applied behaviour analysis theory (Rogers and Dawson, 2010). This naturalistic, play-based therapy sits at the forefront of scientifically supported early intervention for ASD.
It focuses on skills and abilities that are often affected by ASD, including:
- Communication– understanding and using language, gestures (requesting, sharing, giving, pointing) and facial expressions.
- Social skills and engagement– eye contact, joint attention, imitation, turn-taking, and greeting.
- Cognitive skills – reading, identifying numbers, and understanding quantities.
- Social and pretend play
- Personal independence– eating, dressing, personal hygiene, and chores.
- Fine and gross motor skills– drawing, writing; walking and jumping.
Children with ASD are often less inclined to participate in or initiate social interactions and tend to direct their focus towards a specific range of activities or objects. In the life of a young child, fewer moments of social interaction and observation or a repetitive range of interests, can result in reduced opportunity for learning each day. ESDM therapists address this via utilising techniques that strengthen a child’s social reward system, in order to increase their engagement with social learning opportunities both within and beyond the therapy room.
Parents/caregivers are the primary teachers of all young children and this is no different for children with ASD. The ESDM encourages parents/caregivers to assume an integral role in their child’s learning and to assist with setting objectives for their child by communicating their values, hopes and priorities across everyday settings. Parents/caregivers can also be coached in the implementation of ESDM strategies in the home.
All children differ from each other, and that is most definitely true for children with ASD. Therefore, ESDM therapists start with an assessment of each child using the ESDM curriculum as a guide. They then develop a 10-12-week individualised learning program, setting a series of learning objectives and outlining the steps essential to accomplishing these.
Once the program begins, detailed records of the child’s successes are kept, so that the therapist can closely monitor their progress and regularly relay this to the child’s parents. Using intensive teaching in the form of play to address any learning deficits created by the child’s reduced ‘access’ to the social world (Rogers et al., 2000).
In contrast to many traditional approaches, FUN is recognised as the driving force behind learning in the ESDM. Understood to be one of the most effective vehicles for teaching, fun is a key component in the process of achieving developmental targets for every child. Completing a puzzle or building a block tower together, playing with bubbles, reading books or singing nursery rhymes – these are all rich opportunities for a child to learn about themselves, others and the world around them.