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Early intervention for toddlers with autism improves long-term outcomes

Follow-up study on Early Start Denver Model therapy for toddlers shows that gains in abilities and reduced autism symptoms persist into gradeschool
June 10, 2015

A follow-up study on the Early Start Denver Model therapy for autism finds that toddlers who completed the program maintain the significant gains they made two years later, at age 6.

The findings, to be published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, appear online ahead of print.

Autism Speaks helped fund the study and related research on the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). ESDM promotes social and communication skills through play-based interactions that the therapist teaches parents to use at home with their children.

In an earlier study, the investigators showed that children who receive ESDM make significantly greater gains in daily function and intellectual ability compared to children who receive their community’s standard early-intervention services. These standard services typically include a mix of speech and behavioral therapy. This earlier research also found that ESDM produces clear improvements in brain function not seen in the other children. TIME magazine included these findings among its “Top Ten Medical Breakthroughs of 2012.”

The new report follows up on the 39 children in the original study. They began receiving either ESDM or their community’s standard intervention services when they were 18 to 30 months old. Both groups received at least 15 hours a week of therapy for two years.

The follow-up study found that the children in the ESDM group maintained their gains in overall intellectual ability and language and had achieved further reductions in their autism symptoms. This progress was significantly greater than the modest improvements seen in the children who had received standard community services.

"This is the evidence needed to support effective intervention policies for children with autism, whether it's insurance coverage or state support for early autism intervention," says lead researcher Annette Estes, of the University of Washington Autism Center, in Seattle.

Autism Speaks actively advocates for autism-related state initiatives and health insurance coverage nationwide. Learn more and join our efforts here.

Also see: “High-quality early intervention for autism more than pays for itself

“Although a number of studies have shown the positive effects of early intervention on children’s abilities during the preschool period, there have been few studies to date that have followed these children,” adds senior researcher Geri Dawson. “The results suggest that early intervention results in long- term benefits for children across a wide range of skills.”

Autism Speaks' Kara Reagon, associate director of dissemination science, spoke to the Sacramento Bee about the study. She said many parents are drawn to the Early Start Denver Model because it is a naturalistic approach that does not significantly interrupt their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Dawson developed the ESDM program with Sally Rogers, of the University of California- Davis, in 2008. Dr. Dawson served as Autism Speaks’ chief science officer from 2007 to 2013 and now directs the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, at Duke University.

In addition to Autism Speaks funding, the study received support from the National Institute of Mental Health and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

For more on the research referenced in this story, also see:
Intensive Early Intervention Improves Social Skills and Brain Responses.

Explore all the research and family-service projects that Autism Speaks is funding using this website’s grant search. These projects are made possible by the passion and generosity of our families, donors and volunteers.

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