April 15, 2014

Tennessee, Vanderbilt launch novel autism intervention program

puzzel pieces, autism

Vanderbilt University’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) and the Tennessee Department of Education are partnering to bring a novel intervention program to families of young children with autism in Middle Tennessee.

Called the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), this new intervention method is aimed at early treatment of toddlers with autism to determine if prevention or reversal of autism patterns may be possible.

Vanderbilt is one of only a few sites in the country studying the ESDM, which, if successful, could represent a more effective and realistic model of early autism care.

Zachary Warren

“For decades autism was thought to be a largely untreatable disorder, with a great majority of children manifesting significant intellectual impairments and severe behavioral challenges.  In recent years research has shown that children receiving specific intensive early intervention can demonstrate dramatic improvements,” said TRIAD Director Zachary Warren, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Special Education and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. “The struggle has been translating these powerful scientific advances in interventions to real-world community settings.”

Named one of Time magazine’s “Top Five Medical Breakthroughs” of 2010, research on the ESDM suggests that some children receiving the intervention demonstrated certain brain functions that had been “normalized” to typical patterns of activity.  Warren cautioned that these claims have yet to been replicated or extended to community groups but said ESDM is the most promising early intervention approach seen to date for toddlers with autism.

The ESDM combines techniques that make application of this intervention possible for very young children. Specifically, the new model emphasizes the social components of early learning and teaches parents how to alter their behavior to enhance social learning in their children.

The Tennessee program will initially target approximately 30 children diagnosed with autism through existing Vanderbilt programs and provide a specific 12-session model of parent training outlined by the authors of ESDM intervention.

Pablo Juarez

“TRIAD and the DOE have for over a decade partnered to better meet the educational needs of preschool and school-aged children with autism through unique training programs targeting teachers and administrators across the grand regions of the state,” said Pablo Juarez, M.Ed., associate director of TRIAD. “These unique partnerships have trained literally thousands of educators, and as a consequence reached thousands of children. We are hopeful that this new partnership around early intervention will help us figure out how best to meet the needs of the unprecedented young children diagnosed with autism in our state.”

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new estimates that one in 68 children has autism, up from an estimated one in 88 in 2012.

“This data unequivocally establishes autism as an extremely common disorder,” Warren said. “It is also extremely important to keep in mind that these are not simply numbers. Behind these numbers are children and families struggling to find answers and effective treatments.”

Participants in this pilot program will be enrolled through existing clinical evaluation programs through Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. For more information, contact (877) ASD-VUMC.