ESDM: Unique Play-Based Autism Therapy

At Soar, we provide autism therapy based on the Early Start Denver Model.


The ESDM is the most effective and compassionate approach for young learners. It is a developmentally informed behavioral intervention that focuses on teaching skills through shared engagement, play, and daily routines.

What is the Early Start Denver Model?

The Early Start Denver Model, or ESDM, is a comprehensive therapy program for children with autism. ESDM is the leading, evidence-based therapy for young learners, aged 1 to 5.

The ESDM is a naturalistic, play-based and comprehensive approach to autism therapy that combines applied behavior analysis (ABA), developmental science, and relationship-based approaches.

It was developed by Sally Rogers and Geraldine Dawson and was named a Top Medical Breakthrough by Time Magazine in 2012.

How does ESDM help kids with autism?

The ESDM has been shown in high-quality research studies to improve language skills, cognition, social skills, adaptive skills, and behavior in children with autism.

Research studies on ESDM have also shown improvements in brain activity, such as changes on brain wave tests (EEG) when viewing faces and objects.

Early intervention with the ESDM can make a lifelong difference for children with autism yet the model is not widely available.

What is the difference between ESDM and ABA?

ESDM and ABA are related. The simplest description is that ESDM is a blending of the principles of ABA along with developmental and relationship science.

Check out this article in our autism Learning Center with more detail on the differences between the two models. The article includes videos on the two models so you can see the differences in action.

Key Features of the ESDM

  • Learning through play and everyday routines

    Joint activity routines (JARs) are used as the core learning tool in the ESDM.

  • Curriculum focused on foundational skills

    The ESDM checklist focuses on key skills for young children: communication, social skills, play, dressing, etc.

  • Focus on relationships

    Teaches children that caregivers are fun and creates a foundation for ongoing learning.

  • Teaching moments are built into routines

    ABA teaching strategies are embedded into JARs for learning

The Joint Activity Routine

Learn more about one if the key principles of the Early Start Denver Model of autism therapy: the Joint Activity Routine. JARs are at the core of Soar’s work with young children with autism.

Understanding the Early Start Denver Model

In this video, co-founder Ian Goldstein, MD, offers a brief overview of how Soar approaches autism therapy based on the ESDM.

Why does Soar emphasize the ESDM?

Strong Clinical Evidence

  • Multiple randomized clinical trials show impact of ESDM for young children
  • Approach leads to superior outcomes compared to traditional care, particularly in language development
  • ESDM is the most rigorously tested ABA-based intervention for young kids!
  • Gains continue over time compared to community programming

Developmentally Appropriate and Fun!

  • Follows the science of early child development
  • Children and providers build strong, nurturing relationships
  • Kids have a great time in therapy and look forward to coming back each day to Soar


  1. Rogers, & Dawson, 2010
  2. Rogers et al. An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn. The Guilford Press, 2012.
  3. Dawson et al, Pediatrics, 2010.
  4. Rogers et al, JAACAP, 2019. Dawson et al, JAACAP, 2012.
  5. Estes et al, JAACAP, 2015.
  6. Vivanti & Stahmer, Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2020.
  7. Baer et al, JABA, 1968.

Soar Autism Center

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