Pre-schoolers with autism are playing to learn

Upper Hutt mother Tabitha Harlow is trying a different way of playing with her two autistic pre-school daughters, Mackenzie and London, to support their development. 

She is practising a play-based therapy called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), which has been developed in the United States for pre-schoolers. Tabitha and the girls joined one of the playgroups that have been running each term this year, through Victoria University of Wellington. 

The ESDM team at the university’s School of Education is providing the early intervention programme alongside research to evaluate its impact. Learning is embedded in normal routines and skills are taught through play-based activities. The services on offer include one-to-one ESDM therapy, parent coaching, playgroups and workshops offering practical strategies for parents. The programme is funded, in part, by the IHC Foundation and led by Dr Hannah Waddington and Dr Larah van der Meer, who are both lecturers and ESDM therapists. 

Tabitha and the girls went to an ESDM playgroup once a week for eight weeks in the first term. “I would have loved to have kept doing it. It really was fantastic.” She says the team would play with the children and then pull the mums aside. “They would find out what problems we were having and made suggestions about what to try.” 

Tabitha says from the time Mackenzie was a baby she didn’t make eye contact and wasn’t interested in faces. “She would do things like lining up her toys, and she seemed to be more interested in random objects than toys. After London was born, Mackenzie started having meltdowns.” 

She says she began to suspect that London was also on the spectrum when she was about three months old. London did not make eye contact either or show interest in faces. The sisters don’t relate well to each other. “They are not very happy to be in each other’s spaces a lot of time.” 

Mackenzie, now three-and-a-half years old, was diagnosed with autism a year ago. London, nearly two years, was diagnosed at 18 months. But Tabitha says attending the playgroup had boosted her confidence in helping the girls to communicate. Now when she plays with the girls she focuses on what they are interested in at that moment and doesn’t overdo the language. “It’s just changing the way you interact with your kids all the time.” 

ESDM therapy focuses on relationship-building between families, the therapists and the children, and aims to support children with autism across all areas of development. Hannah Waddington says the ESDM team has been working with more than 25 families this year and the main goal of the playgroup is to empower parents to use these strategies so they can be comfortable and confident.  

They are looking for improvements in imitation, communication and engagement – all skills that children with autism can struggle with. Hannah says international clinical trials of the therapy are showing dramatic results for children, including increased understanding, improvement in language abilities and fewer autism symptoms.