The Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) is an important approach for individuals with children who have been diagnosed as autistic. This can manifest as a variety of conditions along what is now known as the autism spectrum. While in the past, parents were often encouraged to institutionalize children with these disorders, cognitive science has provided relief and support, enabling parents to nuture these children in their own homes. The ESDM is one such tool. Below, the model is explained and explored for the benefit of parents, teachers, and those interested in pursuing a path of specialized therapy.

What the Model Does

Based on the Denver Model, which is applied to older children with Autism Spectrum disorder, the early version was developed by Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. and Sally Rogers, Ph.D. as a tool for early integration of children with autism. It focuses on the age group of 1 to 4 years, and is crafted so that the lessons can be initiated in a variety of settings.

The developmental curriculum specifically targets areas in which these children may have difficulty—social interaction, integrated skills sets, and personal relationship forming—with a relationship-focused curriculum. It relies on intensively tested and empirically verified teaching techniques that draw on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and field-vetted teaching practices. Some of the key features of the Early Start Denver Model are:

• Deep parental interaction
• Language and communication lessons delivered within an affect-based and positive relationship
• Emphasis on positive affect and interpersonal dynamics
• Naturalistic strategies drawn from ABA
• Joint activities that reinforce shared involvement
• A sensitivity to normal childhood development goals

The ESDM prepares children with autism spectrum disorders and their parents for later educational and developmental programs, such as the Denver Model. It helps to establish relationship-focused behaviors in the children at an early age, which will assist in their integration to larger social groups at a later time. As such, it has become an indispensable aid to children who may not naturally seek connection with other members of their social context, and who will experience difficulty learning other related tasks.

Why It’s Essential

Based on randomized clinical trials, the ESDM was shown to be highly beneficial to children with ASD. The model’s malleable setting needs—which means it can be employed in a clinical setting, a group therapy environment, and even at home—showed that children who received 20 hours of total instruction with the model prospered in later programs focused on socialized skills and language acquisition. In fact, the trials showed that children with greater learning challenges benefited as much as others with fewer difficulties.

The model has proven indispensable to parents and caregivers of children with ASD, in large part because it assists with social development from a very early age. Many skill sets are directly or subtly linked to our ability to communicate and interact with others in a social context. Hence, without the basis for learning in an integrated, socially focused environment, children may suffer substantially in terms of cognitive development.

Related Resource: What Can Be Done To Prevent Autism?

While it is true that a less institutionally focused approach has benefited the families of children with ASD, tools such as the ESDM have played a large role in making that approach possible. Perhaps the greatest benefit the Early Start Denver Model offers is its focus on a period crucial to human social development, when the human brain undergoes profound changes and is most reliant on social stimulus.