So what is the difference between ABA and ESDM?

Good question on which much can be written. First of all, before we begin to clarify the differences, it may be worth saying a word or two about each of these treatment methods.

  • The acronym for ABA is Applied Behavior Analysis, and its foundations can be found as early as the 1960s. A few decades ago, it made a significant breakthrough in treatment for children with autism. Since then, many ABA variations have been developed, but what they all have in common is that they are based on principles of learning research, such as the use of reinforcement.
  • The acronym for ESDM is Early Start Denver Model, and the basis of this model is at the MIND Institute for Autism Research sitting at UC DAVIS. It belongs to a family of interventions that are – naturalistic (which means that they are implemented in the child’s natural environment), developmental (which means that they emphasize developmental adaptation and connection), and behavioral (which means that they also use the principles of learning).

Like many methods for treating children with autism, ESDM and ABA have similarities

  • Both involve intensive work – we know today that in order to progress and reduce the gap, children with autism need intensive practice. One way to achieve intensive practice is through many intervention hours of professionals. Another way, which we especially like at SocialMind, is to train parents to create natural learning opportunities in their daily routine.
  • Both include a work plan and systematic data collection. Research teaches us that a work plan that includes defined goals and data collection has a significant impact on the progress of children with autism. There is so much to do and learn, if we don’t focus and regularly check what works and what doesn’t, what improves and what is stuck, we may miss important things! This is done in both ABA and ESDM.
  • They both use learning principles – the ABA treatment method has led to a breakthrough in understanding that learning principles (creating a learning situation – encouraging behavior – and strengthening) can help children with autism progress and acquire skills. Many methods use these behavioral tools, including ESDM. However – the process, the context, and the way they use them are different.

So what exactly are the differences?

By the time I learned about ESDM, my kids were a little too big for the model, primarily geared toward preschoolers. But when I meet parents of young children with autism, I recommend ESDM. Mainly because intensive highest quality research shows its effectiveness compared to other interventions in the community. There are many talented therapists who work with ABA and a lot of talented therapists who work with ESDM. Some have different styles, different characters, each treats a little differently. But when I analyze the differences between the interventions, I do not refer only to what one therapist does or another – but to the core of the method, to the written model principles. In professional terms, this is called: “application quality”. How is it determined? According to these principles, caregivers and parents undergo certification, followed by guidance and supervision.

The principles of application of the ESDM

The adherence to which is systematically measured, include the following topics:

Child attention management, the use of learning principles, proper use of prompting techniques, regulating child’s affect and arousal, the quality of the dyadic engagement, maximizing child’s motivation, using a positive affect, the responsiveness and sensitivity of the adult, diverse learning opportunities, adapting parents language to child’s language, establishing joint activities, and proper transitions between activities. When you look at it like that, there are some fundamental differences between the traditional non-naturalistic ABA and ESDM. But this is just a list of principles, which may have left you confused and overwhelmed. I will try to illustrate this with a video.