New play-based therapy effective for New Zealand children with autism

New research from Victoria University of Wellington suggests that a low-intensity version of a play-based therapy known as the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) may be effective for New Zealand children with autism.

Child plays with toy

The ESDM uses play and games to build positive and fun relationships in which children are encouraged to boost language, social and cognitive skills.

Dr Hannah Waddington, a lecturer in the University’s Faculty of Education, says international research shows that more than 20 hours a week of early intervention produces the most effective outcomes for children with autism under the age of five. However, this amount of intervention is neither accessible nor affordable for most New Zealand families and whānau, she says.

Ministry of Education figures show the average waiting time for early intervention support in Wellington in 2017-18 was 196 days, more than double the national average of 99 days.

“Research shows that the ESDM is appropriate for children as young as 12 months, which means that New Zealand’s long waiting lists are reducing valuable early intervention time,” says Dr Waddington.

Dr Waddington’s research focused on evaluating the effectiveness of a low-intensity version of the ESDM for preschool-aged children with autism, given the current lack of accessibility to therapy for New Zealand families and whānau.

“Our first study involved three hours a week of ESDM therapy in the homes of four young boys with autism for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, all four showed improved imitation ability, communication, and engagement,” she says.

In a second study, four parents learned to use ESDM techniques and to deliver therapy to their child with autism over 12 weeks. Dr Waddington says the children showed some improvements in imitation, engagement and/or spoken language.

In a third study, a therapist delivered the ESDM in a kindergarten setting three times a week for 10 weeks and found the children had very similar outcomes to study two.

The results suggest that a low-intensity version of the ESDM programme is effective and applicable in a New Zealand context, she says.

Dr Waddington and a team of trained ESDM therapists at the University provide ESDM therapy to preschool-aged children in the Wellington region. Her current research is now exploring additional methods of delivering effective early intervention programmes to additional New Zealand children and their families and whānau, including ESDM playgroups, and a combination of therapy and parent coaching.