ESDM is a life-changing breakthrough for autism

Written by: Evan Campa



The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) has transformed the lives of many young children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If you are a parent of a young child who has a diagnosis of autism or shows characteristics of autism, ESDM can be hugely beneficial in teaching pivotal skills and enhancing interactions.

ESDM therapy is a comprehensive, early intensive intervention based on the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). This approach to therapy was pioneered by Sally J. Rogers, Ph.D., and Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., at the University of California Davis MIND Institute. There is extensive research that shows the success of ESDM for young children between the ages of 12 and 48 months. During this critical period, children make greater developmental gains if they receive consistent ESDM therapy.

In ESDM therapy, children build a foundation for pivotal developmental skills including communication, social-emotional growth, and independence with tasks. These skills often pose challenges for children with autism, so ESDM addresses these areas during the critical stages of early childhood. This approach also increases age-appropriate skills and decreases characteristics of autism.

Targeting these significant skill areas in early childhood is critical, and an early start to therapy results in great gains for children during their formative years. In fact, TIME magazine deemed ESDM one of the “Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs” due to its ability to positively alter brain patterns in children with autism. CNN has also reported that ESDM therapy is a highly effective intervention method for autism in early childhood.

ESDM therapy typically occurs in the child’s natural environment (e.g., home, early childhood setting, community), and the parent or professional will use relationship-based strategies and ABA teaching strategies to teach key skills. These strategies encourage desired behaviors by providing natural, positive reinforcement.

ESDM is play-based to keep the child engaged in the therapeutic activities. Research shows that children learn best when the activities are motivating and enjoyable. While the sessions are play-based, the adult (i.e., behavior analyst) will have set goals to target throughout the session such as providing appropriate responses in a social exchange. These sessions will vary for every child depending on their unique goals and needs.

recent study conducted by University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry examined the financial benefits of ESDM therapy. This study determined that investing in ESDM led to substantial long-term savings for therapy. Most children who received ESDM did not require as many additional services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy.

Parents play a pivotal role in the ESDM process. In addition to spending time with a trained professional, parents will typically implement ESDM therapy strategies at home to encourage successful carryover of skills. Parents can become involved in the therapeutic process by observing sessions with the trained professional and by receiving parent training that follows the ESDM parent manual. Having this knowledge will allow parents to facilitate meaningful therapeutic exercises in daily interactions with their children, which can result in better overall outcomes.

Some providers provide ESDM parent education sessions to reinforce the teachings from the ESDM parent manual. During the sessions, the professional will model ways for parents to implement ESDM strategies during daily activities and play. The parents will also practice these strategies during the sessions. In addition to applying the strategies, the professional will review the lessons in the manual to ensure that the parents have a solid understanding of the different strategies.

As is the case with any therapeutic services, consistency is critical. As a parent, your role in the therapeutic process outside of scheduled sessions is extremely important for your child. If you find that your child benefits from ESDM therapy, you will likely see that your child makes great long-term gains to set them up for success.

Evan Campa, M.Ed., BCBA, the lead Behavior Analyst of Chicago ABA Therapy, is the only certified ESDM trainer in Illinois. She is certified as a trainer, parent coach, and direct therapist in ESDM. Visit or call 773-630-4400 to learn more about ESDM and ABA therapy for children in Chicago.

Posted on September 25, 2017 at 9:49 AM