ESDM: Autism Therapy Based on Play, Relationships & Fun

A new, developmentally appropriate, and more effective approach to autism therapy

Soar’s approach to autism therapy is based on the Early Start Denver Model, or ESDM, the most effective and compassionate autism care for young children.

ESDM focuses on teaching children in the ways that their brains are naturally wired to learn, through relationships, social interactions, and play. It is the leading, evidence-based therapy for young learners, aged 1 to 5.

The ESDM is a naturalistic – or play-based – approach to autism therapy. It combines principles from applied behavior analysis (ABA), developmental science, and relationship-based approaches.

How does the ESDM help children with autism?

In more than a dozen highly reputable studies, therapy based on the ESDM was found to improve language, social, and adaptive skills in children with autism, as well as cognition and behavior.

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 outside of a few select providers, including Soar Autism Center.

How is Soar’s approach different from other autism care providers?

Soar is nothing like the old-school, behavior-focused ABA therapy that many autism treatment programs continue to offer. Many ABA providers focus only on behaviors and force children to conform to one way of doing things.

Soar’s approach is completely different. Our therapy is based on the latest brain science which shows that children learn best through play, relationships, and fun.

At Soar, we celebrate neurodiversity. Our whole-child autism care philosophy addresses each child’s individual needs while celebrating and cultivating their strengths.

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.

ESDM is a form of Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions, or NDBIs. ESDM and NDBI are recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics as effective and well-studied approaches to autism therapy.

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.

Soar meets every child where they are developmentally and helps them grow through play-based therapy and joint activity routines.

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 of 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, Soar’s co-founder Ian Goldstein, MD, explains 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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