By Raising Children Network
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
At a glance: Early Start Denver Model
Type of therapy
The claim
Improves social, communication and academic skills and skills of daily living
Suitable for
Children with ASD (from 1-5 years of age)
Research rating

Find out more about this rating system in our FAQs.

Some research shows positive effects, more research needed.

Estimate of the total time for family in hours per week and duration

20+ This therapy is designed to be used throughout the child’s day in different settings (home, clinic and preschool).

Estimate of cost to family per session/item or week.

$0-30 The cost usually involves one hour per week with a trained practitioner.
Visit the Autism Service Pathfinder to browse Service Providers information.

About this intervention

What is it?
The Early Start Denver Model is a play-based approach to teaching that focuses on helping children with ASD develop social communication skills (such as showing interest and responding to others). The approach is used in three different settings – one-to-one intensive teaching or therapy sessions, time in a typical preschool setting and teaching at home. The Early Start Denver Model emphasises the development of play skills, relationships and language.

Who is it for?
This therapy is designed for children (toddlers and preschoolers) with ASD or with early signs of autism. Young children diagnosed with other kinds of developmental and behavioural disorders can also use this intervention.

What is it used for?
The goal of the model is to use play to increase children’s interest in activities and other people. It also aims to improve communication skills and self-expression, helping children with ASD get along with others – especially their parents.

Where does it come from?
The Early Start Denver Model was developed in the US in 1981. It was initially called the ‘play school model’, because its key activities took place as part of children’s play activities.

What is the idea behind it?
Children with autism have difficulty learning how to communicate and develop relationships. This model aims to help children learn these skills by:

  • focusing on the communication and relationship skills children already have
  • using play to gradually build on these skills in an intensive, structured and enjoyable way.

This work is based on having (or developing) a strong positive relationship between children and their carers. This relationship is encouraged by focusing on activities children enjoy, and using these activities as the basis for teaching.

What does it involve?
The model uses play activities to improve social communication skills and encourage relationships with other people. It also aims to teach children how communicating with others can help, so they are motivated to keep trying.

The team (made up of early-intervention staff and the parents) develop a tailored program for the child. The program includes objectives, goals and activities targeting skill development.

The therapist teaches parents and other carers how to implement the program whenever they are with the child, and progress is reviewed regularly.

Cost considerations
There is a cost for the therapist's time (usually one hour per week). This cost may be covered by your early intervention service.

Does it work?
Some research has shown positive effects from this therapy, but more high-quality studies are needed.

Who practises this method?
The Early Start Denver Model is usually delivered by an intervention team made up of the parents, early intervention service staff and a therapist. One member of the team coordinates the child’s care, collecting data and assessing improvements. Other team members might be early childhood educators, child psychologists, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists.

Parent education, training, support and involvement
Children’s programs are developed for them by parents working with intervention teams. Once trained by the practitioner, parents implement the program at home, and regularly meet with the team to review progress.

Where can I find a practitioner?
Contact the autism association in your state and ask them to recommend a service or practitioner. Currently, three early intervention services in Australia are trained to deliver the Early Start Denver Model. To find out more contact the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre in Victoria or KU Children's Services in New South Wales.

  • Last updated or reviewed 07-09-2012