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Early Start Denver Model (ESDM): Unleash Potential!

Read time: 4 minutes

The brain has a unique property called neuroplasticity. This means that our brains are constantly able to change and grow. Children under 5 years old have the easiest time with neuroplasticity. Even when the child has been diagnosed with autism, it is possible to make significant gains that are life changing. We can achieve this through early intervention. Specifically by using the Early Start Denver Model, we can begin even before a diagnosis is made. 

Child playing with is mom during an Early Start Denver Model session.

Within a therapeutic environment, the autistic child presents a higher chance of developing language, cognition, and social interaction abilities. We can teach skills to overcome the challenges associated with the autism diagnosis. But the essential thing is for the intervention to begin early on.

ESDM: The earlier, the better

Developmental specialists recommend the therapy to start as early as possible, as this leads to the best outcomes. Parents should not wait for the diagnosis but seek the help of a therapist as soon as they have suspicions about their child’s development. 

The sooner we start the intervention, the better the outcome is likely to be. Parents might struggle to accept the diagnosis, but they should waste no time in pursuing therapy.

A better chance of addressing behavioural issues 

Autistic children often have challenging behaviours which become more challenging over time. Addressing challenging behaviours is generally easier in younger children because they don’t have a long learning history. Having a long learning history means that the behaviour has been reinforced for a long time. Similar to a habit, behaviours with long learning histories are hard to break.

If there are challenging or non-adaptive behaviours present early intervention can replace them with alternative behaviours. The key is teaching replacement behaviours that meet the same needs but are more effective. For example, if a child is taught that they will get your attention if they cry, they will keep crying. They do this because that strategy works. But if you reward a child for using another strategy (e.g.: a word approximation, directed eye gaze or pointing) they will use the new behaviour instead. And then the challenging behaviour will fade away.    

ESDM: Individualized intervention from an early age

The therapist will develop an individualized intervention plan, based on the child’s needs, behavioural issues and the use of the Early Start Denver Model Curriculum Checklist. The Curriculum Checklist is a list of skills that are divided into levels that represent different ages.  The therapist uses the Curriculum Checklist to assess your child’s strengths and areas of need relative to same age peers. The purpose of the intervention plan is to help the child develop a wide range of skills including: attention, communication and interaction. 

As mentioned above, a structured environment will offer opportunities for learning. It facilitates the growth of skills, while it allows the therapist or parent to monitor the progress being made on a consistent basis. The therapist can adjust the plan as necessary, but the chief goal will remain the same: the child learns through play while having fun.

Early Intervention: Families receive support early on

As parents of special needs children, especially autistic children, it is normal to feel helpless and frustrated. Early intervention, though, can be highly beneficial for the entire family. It can provide support early on, reducing the amount of stress parents experience. Having an action plan and strategies to use will help parents to feel empowered and as though they are taking action. 

It is vital that the parents are also implementing the strategies and using therapeutic interventions with their children. The child has a limited number of hours with the therapist each week but many more hours with their parents. These hours should be maximized! 

What matters is that they capture the attention of the child and pursue communication. Being creative and silly will go a long way. 

ESDM: A combination of ABA and play

An experienced therapist will give the child time to become accustomed to the unfamiliar environment, chaining skills together to create a smooth session. It takes time to build the relationship, and only then will the therapist focus on addressing behavioural issues, cognitive and speech delays, etc.

Taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity 

We see the best results up to the age of five years, as that is when the child’s brain is most malleable. We can unleash the learning potential in therapy and limit the effects of the autism diagnosis. As a result, the overall quality of life can improve, thanks to the newly learned skills. 

The benefits of early intervention using the Early Start Denver Model in autistic children are obvious. The earlier the child enters a structured, therapeutic environment, the better his/her progress will be. Parents should actively collaborate with the therapist, practicing taught strategies at home and helping their children unleash their full potential.

To learn more about how Side by Side Therapy can help your child with an Early Start Denver Model program, please connect with us!

Ontario Autism Program (OAP): a short history.

Early 2016

The government announced a huge investment into a new program called the Ontario Autism Program. This announcement was very exciting at first. Once it was studied the reality sank in: children would be removed from intensive services at age 5.

In June 2016

Michael Coteau, the Minister for Children and Youth announced changes to the Ontario Autism Program. The plan was to offer evidence based Applied Behaviour Analysis services at amounts that were based on need. Families that had been removed from IBI would receive $10,000 instalments until the new program was introduced in 2017. The children entering the Coteau plan would be the luckiest in the province, receiving the most therapy for the longest duration.

Boy reading a book as part of his Ontario Autism Program funding.

From the start, the government presented it as a program that they would improve and expand. The foremost goal was to facilitate access to therapy and reduce the financial burden on families. Key points of the OAP included: family-centred decision making, individualized intervention and the possibility to choose a specific private provider.

Changes to the OAP in 2018/2019

Doug Ford became the Premier of Ontario in June 2019. He brought a new government, changing from a Liberal government to a Progressive Conservative majority. In September 2018, the Ford government quietly instituted a pause on new service offers to children on the waitlist.  This freeze dramatically increased the waitlist. A few months later, Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Children and Youth used the ballooning waitlist as the reason for making dramatic changes to the OAP Funding.  

In February 2019

Lisa MacLeod, announced a “new and improved” version of the OAP. This plan provided Childhood Budgets to autistic children. The budgets were based on the child’s age when they began therapy. Younger children being eligible for much more funding than older children. One element of the childhood budgets was income testing, meaning that families with higher incomes would get less funding. There was no consideration for any extenuating circumstances (level of need or availability of services in the child’s location).  

In March 2019

Lisa MacLeod announced that SLP and OT services would become eligible expenses for the childhood budgets. She also announced that the income testing would be removed. The announcement also allowed children currently under the Coteau OAP to have their funding extended for an additional 6 months. 

In June 2019

Todd Smith took over the Autism file when Lisa MacLeod became Tourism Minister.

In December 2019

Todd Smith announced that the province would follow the recommendations of an Advisory Panel it had established. Despite having previously stated that the new program would be ready by April 2020, Minister Smith stated that the new program would be implemented by April 2021. The reason for the extra year was to let the province to ‘get the program right’. The main recommendation was to move back towards a needs-based funding model and to remove the childhood budget. 

The province also announced that they would begin offering one-time funding payments to families. These payments were based on the child’s age to bridge the program until the needs-based funding could be rolled out. Children aged 1-5 years would receive $20,000 and children between the ages of 6-17 years would receive $5,000. The newest OAP would include 4 pillars:

  • Core Services
  • Foundational Family Services
  • Early Intervention and School Readiness Services
  • Mental Health Services. 

Where do families stand now?

Some children are still on the Coteau OAP program. These children are called ‘Legacy Kids’. Some children aged out of the program and received nothing. Some families accepted childhood budgets and have spent those funds. They should apply to receive one-time funding. Many other families on the waitlist still have not received invitations to apply for the one-time funding. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has totally upended the therapy of autistic kids because most providers were forced to stop services. The province has extended the deadline to spend the one-time funding by 6 months in an effort to give families time to use their funds. Service providers are gradually beginning to reopen. Families are scrambling to put together teams for their children.

Much of the information in this post was taken from the Ontario Autism Coalition’s website.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis? 8 Steps to help kickstart your child’s success

Read Time: 5 minutes

The word autism in a magnifying glass, demonstrating that this article is about autism spectrum disorder.

Receiving a diagnosis that your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not only scary but overwhelming too. There are so many questions and while there is a vast amount of research to turn to these answers often only result in further questions and possibly further confusion.

It is important to rely on your treatment team including a Board-Certified Behaviour Analyst in Toronto (BCBA) for support and guidance as they understand just how exhausting and challenging such a diagnosis can be. Working together will help with your child and family’s success both at home and at school.

Here are some helpful tips to try when your child gets an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis:

1.  Become an Expert in your Child’s Needs, Likes and Dislikes

Each child with autism spectrum disorder is different and we need to embrace, understand and support their differences. This can be achieved through research and asking questions about autism spectrum disorder and more specifically your child’s individual needs. As each child is unique, you must remain open minded about their experience of having autism. Once you gain some knowledge you will then be able to ask insightful questions to help build the best treatment plan for your child. 

The best place to start is with your child’s family physician, they will be able to refer you to an autism consultant who can work with you to develop a team. Your physician should also be able to provide you with useful resources such as finding the best Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapist or group including Board Certified Behaviour Analysts (BCBA) for your child. Remember finding the right therapist may take time and patience. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in a treatment plan. 

2. Find Help through Technology

As technology has become an integral resource within our society, it has become a very useful tool for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. Firstly, a vast array of knowledge and research regarding your child’s diagnosis and treatment can be gained through the internet. Secondly, technology is also used as a resource for community building through social media including parenting groups and intervention discussion forums.  Here there is an opportunity to seek the support and experiences from parents in similar situations and professionals in the field. These communities are amazing and can help one to realize they are not alone. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, technology holds a critical use for autism spectrum disorder children that have communication difficulties and is used as a tool to remove this barrier. AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) gives a voice to children who cannot speak using tablets or computers with specialized apps that utilize text or image to speech technology. These are sometimes called SGD (Speech Generating Devices). 

3. Get Intervention as Soon as Possible

Parents that feel that their child might have autism spectrum disorder should speak with their child’s physician as early as possible to investigate a diagnosis. Don’t allow your child’s doctor to dissuade you or convince you to ‘wait and see’. With an early diagnosis and then prompt invention parents are able to start working towards helping their child to address interfering behaviours and increase communication skills.

Intervention is most effective in younger children. If your child’s interfering or challenging behaviour (e.g.: outburst in public) is addressed and dealt with early on, then the hope is that through reinforcing positive or desirable behaviour, the child will eventually be independent in the future in the same situations. Positive outcomes are possible for older children as well, so don’t give up if your child is older when they begin to receive treatment. 

4. Ensure your Child’s Treatment is a Family Affair

An autism spectrum disorder diagnosis not only affects the diagnosed child but it affects the entire family. It’s therefore necessary that the therapy plan includes siblings’ and parents’ opinions and experiences. Since schedules and rules set out in the plan will put expectations on the entire family, their input and buy-in is imperative for the success of the program.

It is also vital that family members are involved in the treatment plan to ensure that generalization occurs. This means that your child is able to demonstrate all the skills they are learning in new settings and with new people instead of only with the treatment team. It may become a balancing act for you, however with support, consistency and careful consideration and execution of the therapist’s recommendations your day-to day routines will become less overwhelming. 

5. Trust your BCBA, Treatment Team and the Process

As mentioned, finding the right BCBA and program can be a difficult journey, however, once this is accomplished you will soon see that you are on the right path. As your child is unique in their needs you must remain optimistic and open-minded. There will be necessary tweaks and adjustments along the way and through trial and error, you will certainly see positive changes.

Finding a team that suits your family’s needs and expectations is extremely important. You will also need to ensure there is a constant flow of communication between your family and your child’s BCBA so that modifications can be implemented and changes made whenever required. 

6. Celebrate the Successes

As you continue to fill your toolbox with more tips and knowledge it will open the door for greater success. At times there may be a lot of growth and positive changes and at others, there may be little or none. It is important to stay focused on the positive and reflect on the successes and celebrate them frequently. Continuing to stay on course and provide consistent routines and expectations for your child. The more you celebrate the successes the more likely it will be that you feel good about your child and family’s future. 

7. Make Safety a Top Priority

The challenges and long-term responsibilities that come with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis can be additional stress placed upon an autism parent. To help ease the sense of being overwhelmed it is important to get organized and put proper measures into place for a “just in case” situation (for example, looking into life insurance for family members). As children with autism can engage in more dangerous behaviour (wandering, mouthing and self- injury) a safety plan is essential.

It is necessary to develop a plan to address these safety risks with your treatment team. For example, you should ensure that your child always carries or wears identification, especially if they are a wanderer. A simple google search will yield many options for safety tools for your child with autism spectrum disorder.

8. Work on Establishing a Good Sleep Routine

One of the challenges many children with autism spectrum disorder face is difficulty sleeping. Poor sleeping can exacerbate some of the challenging behaviours associated with autism such as impulsivity, compulsions, hyperactivity and physical aggression.  Good sleep hygiene is vital to providing your child with quality restful sleep.

Keep in mind a few things while creating a routine, for instance: maintaining consistent times for going to bed and waking up; how much light is in their bedroom while they’re trying to sleep; ensuring your child has enough play time during the day and not too much screen time prior to bed; perhaps instituting a wind-down quiet period before bed; taking sensory issues into account, i.e. itchy pajama’s, white noise etc.  

If your child has recently received an ASD diagnosis and you are looking for ways that the Ontario Government can support you, please know that changes to the Ontario Autism Program are in the process of being established. They are working towards creating a new “needs -based and sustainable autism program”. Eligibility for this program has the following criteria:

To register for the Ontario Autism Program, your child must:

  • be under age 18
  • currently live in Ontario
  • have a written diagnosis of autism for a qualified professional

Your child’s written diagnosis must include:

  • your child’s full name and date of birth
  • the date of your child’s assessment
  • a statement indicating that the child meets the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder
  • the qualified professional’s name and credentials

For registration information please contact the central intake and registration team at:

Ontario Autism Program
Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services
P.O. Box 193, Toronto, Ontario M7A 1N3
1-888-444-4530 [email protected]

The site notes that if you have registered in the Ontario Autism Program before April 1, 2019 you do not need to register again.  As well, they mention that once your registration is complete, your child will be added to their waitlist and you will receive a letter from the ministry when it is time to complete further steps to receive funding.

Additional services and support are provided by the Ontario government for children with special needs, these are listed below:

For more information please visit:  https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontario-autism-program

If your child was recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, please connect with us. We can help you navigate these distressing times.