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What Parents Need to Know About ESDM Therapy

If your child has recently been diagnosed with Autism, you have probably begun the process of researching different therapeutic methods that will have long term benefits for their development. There is a lot of information out there and it may be difficult for you to come to a decision on which form of therapy would work best. One such form of therapy that you may have come across in your search is the Early Start Denver Model, or ESDM. In the following article, you will become more familiar with what this therapy consists of, and hopefully, have a better understanding of whether or not it will be best for your child.

What is ESDM?

If you’re beginning your research on therapies, ESDM is a good place to start. Learning who can benefit from ESDM, what you can expect from it, and its general functions are is essential in deciding on whether or not it could be right for your child.



The Early Start Denver Model is a form of behavioral therapy, developed by Dr. Sally Rogers and Geraldine Dawson in the early 1980s. It is a form of early intervention therapy focusing on the behavior and interaction of children within a social environment.

Therapy environment

Typically, the therapy will utilize different environments, using natural settings and teaching moments that are within context of that specific environment. ESDM provides flexibility in terms of the treatment’s setting. The therapy can be implemented in a clinical setting, at home, a classroom and even in a group setting outside of these more traditional learning environments.

Who is ESDM for?

ESDM is for young children either with a recent diagnosis of Autism or those who are not yet diagnosed but may be showing signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children who receive this treatment are anywhere between the ages of 1-4 years old; although at times, therapy is employed with patients as young as 9 months and as old as 5 years. This therapy is designed for children in the very early stages of development, so treatment plans are developed with this age group and these cognitive abilities in mind.

How does ESDM therapy work?

While ESDM does draw from some principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), it does stand separate from this form of therapy. Essentially, ESDM focuses on the developmental improvements of children, as well as their relationship building skills.

ESDM and social play

Social play is a huge part of ESDM, using it to encourage communication and interaction with those around the child. Both parents and therapists focus on play to build relationships centered around fun and positivity.

ESDM and your child’s communication

The main idea behind ESDM is that a child should have a grasp of meaningful communication even before speech comes into the picture. By reinforcing the importance of social activities and exposing the child to the idea of social interaction, the child will in turn develop cognitive and relationship building skills. Encouraging interaction during play will inevitably create opportunities for communication, whether it is gesture communication (pointing, guiding, etc.) or verbal communication. ESDM uses relationships to positively affect learning, using interaction to really solidify this point.

What are the benefits of ESDM?

ESDM is a popular method of therapy because of the many benefits it can offer. Beyond the direct ones that are gained through the therapy, ESDM also offers opportunities for flexibility and many opportunities for teaching moments.


Cognitive, communicative, and social skills

Exposing your child to ESDM will ideally increase the development of his or her cognitive, communicative and social interaction skills. Forms of symbolic play are used to really enhance your child’s thinking capability and the use of imitation is beneficial to increasing your child’s ability to focus on peers or others within their environment. These strategies can only serve to better your child’s social interactions and develop the foundation for their cognitive future. ESDM will put your child in a social environment, making it likely that they will eventually be interacting with those around them more effectively.

ESDM flexibility

Another benefit that ESDM provides is its flexibility. One aspect of this form of therapy is the use of several different environments for teaching and learning. This means that your child is not necessarily restricted to one learning setting. ESDM can be conducted anywhere from a classroom, to a clinic, to a group environment. Even you as a parent are able to use the strategies in your own home with your child.

Continual teaching and learning

Also, with the use of natural and contextual learning, it is easy to fit in more teaching opportunities within a session. Ideally, therapists following the Early Start Denver Model would strive for a teaching moment every 10 seconds. While using the natural environment for teaching and having the organic moments in a session serve as a teaching opportunity, there will be no shortage of chances to improve your child’s skills.

Who administers ESDM?

ESDM can be delivered by a variety of different people. More often than not it’s conducted by a team of people, led by you, the parent, and a doctorate professional. Together, you will work to develop the strategies that will be used by the rest of the team working with your child.

This team typically consists of combination of the following:

  • An occupational therapist
  • A speech language pathologist
  • A psychologist
  • An educator or therapist
  • A pediatrician
  • A BCBA


Is ESDM effective?

ESDM can be an effective form of therapy for early intervention cases. Promoting the presence of social interaction and relationship building is always something to strive for. It would probably be best to use this form of therapy in tandem with other forms, like ABA therapy, as intensive behavioral interventions have more evidence and data supporting the long-term effectiveness of treatment. Using the plan of ESDM along with the programs within an ABA focused strategy will promote a well-rounded learning environment for your child.

Questions to ask when thinking about ESDM:

The following are a list of questions to consider if you decide to pursue ESDM therapy for your child:

1.)   Who will be working with my child?

2.)   What sort of programs will be run with my child?

3.)   How many hours a week will my child be exposed to ESDM?

4.)   Will I be able to sit in on sessions and/or participate in sessions?

5.)   Where will our sessions be held?

6.)   What sort of goals will be set?

7.)   How will we ensure we can achieve these goals?

8.)   How will I be able to see and track my child’s progress?

9.)   Will there be parent specific training I can take and use at home?

10.) Who else will be sitting in on or participating in my child’s sessions?



At Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, we incorporate aspects of Early Start Denver Model, in tandem with our ABA strategies, into our teaching methods. We are constantly emphasizing to our therapists the importance of taking advantage of every teaching moment possible. That means even on reinforcer breaks or times when the child is interacting with peers in between programs, we encourage communication and interaction, determined to use these moments as teaching opportunities. Here at SPBS, our team never stops teaching and we always aim to get the best out of your child. We also know that while children are the priority, parents are at their best when they have support – which is why we offer parent support groups here. If you think SPBS might be a good fit for your child or would like more information on the facility, sign up today for your free personal tour.

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