FEATURE | Posted March 21, 2014

Making meaningful advances with autism

UC Davis MIND Institute program helps youngsters

Jayden Hannon and mom Adrianna © UC Regents
Jayden Hannon, here with mom Adrianna, benefits from a novel behavoral intervention program for children with autism that was co-developed at the UC Davis MIND Institute.

Jayden Hannon is no wallflower.

The 3-year-old boy doesn’t have problems being in a room full of people, unlike some of his peers who have also received an autism diagnosis. His problem-solving skills are above average.

His mother Adrianna says he has generally adapted well to his days in a Russell Ranch Elementary special-needs preschool classroom, his first full immersion into society outside of the immediate family.

“He’s doing fine!” she said. “He goes in the classroom and looks at his teacher like, ‘What are we doing today?’ He has little ‘girlfriends’ – he can be at story time and one little girl rubs his hair.

"My husband says, ‘You’re a ladies man already!”

Jayden benefits from the understanding of his dedicated  parents – mom, for instance, is a special-education teacher herself – but Adrianna and husband Jermaine give credit for much of their son's early success in the classroom environment to a novel behavioral intervention program at UC Davis.

A top-ten medical breakthrough

“I have to believe if Jayden wasn’t getting some kind of daily therapy, he wouldn’t be where he is now... (ESDM therapists) played to his strengths"
– Adrianna Hannon

The program, called Early Start Denver Model or ESDM, was co-developed by UC Davis MIND Institute psychiatry professor Sally Rogers, one of the world’s leading researchers on autism treatment.

While intensive – it usually involves several hours of daily behavioral therapy – it has emerged as a prominent method of helping children with autism in the absence of Food and Drug Administration-approved medical treatments for the core symptoms of the lifelong condition.

A study of ESDM by Rogers and her colleagues was the first to demonstrate that an autism early intervention program can normalize brain activity. TIME magazine named it number five among the top 10 medical breakthroughs of 2012.

 “I have to believe if Jayden wasn’t getting some kind of daily therapy, he wouldn’t be where he is now,” Adrianna said. “He always knew how to do things, but he kind of did things ‘outside the box.’ (ESDM therapists) played to his strengths. “

Preparing for everyday life

Jayden Hannon © UC Regents
Early behavioral intervention helped Jayden Hannon to better articulate his needs and to provide cues in social situations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children born today will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Hallmarks of the neurodevelopmental condition include persistent deficits in social communication and relatedness, and repetitive or restrictive patterns of interest that appear in early childhood and impair everyday functioning.

Jayden’s own development had seemed completely typical – speaking, making appropriate eye contact, stacking blocks – until about 16 months of age, when he gradually started demonstrating the repetitive and restrictive patterns.

He became obsessed with spinning the wheels on a toy car, for instance, and began repeatedly lining up blocks instead of building creative things with them.

Then at 22 months, he started losing his speech.

Personalized curriculum

“I would recommend the MIND Institute to anyone for anything. They are warm, welcoming and always there to help you figure out what’s going on. We always say they changed our lives." 
– Adrianna Hannon

Jayden’s eventual autism diagnosis made him eligible for the Early Start Denver Model intervention, which focuses on using play and positive reciprocal interactions to teach a developmental curriculum that is designed for each child based on their current abilities and interests.

“Because of that intensive four hours of training Monday through Friday, Jayden knew what he was supposed to be doing in the classroom, and it wasn’t a struggle for him,” Adrianna said. “For that aspect I’m very grateful, because they’ve helped him be prepared for everyday life as a kid in school.

ESDM “also helped him be able to do things like puzzles and (creative) things such as building with blocks and Legos, because they worked on those step-by-step things,” Hannon said.

'He shows progress at all times'

To learn more about how
UC Davis MIND Institute research helps children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, visit mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu.

The therapy program winds down at age three. Jayden remains nonverbal, but is better able to articulate his needs and makes good eye contact to provide cues that others can read in social situations.

“He shows progress at all times,” Adrianna said. “It is my desire as a parent that one day he will wake up and start talking. He’s learned to give what (cues) are expected of him to go on to the next step. Maybe that next step is him talking, and that’s what I want from him next in the future.”

Jayden’s increased ability to connect with others has been especially important to his father Jermaine, whose career did not allow him to be present during the workday for his son’s behavioral therapy. Jermaine has strong bonds with the Hannons’ 10-year-old daughter and had been working to establish similar connections with Jayden before autism caused the child to start pulling away.

“The MIND gave my husband the best gift – a tool to engage Jayden, feel more involved and connect with him better,” Adrianna said. “Though it was homework for us as parents, it allowed us to bond with our son.”

Adrianna said MIND Institute staff members still keep in touch to see how Jayden is doing, and the Hannons – South Carolina transplants – consider them an extended family.

“I would recommend the MIND Institute to anyone for anything,” Adrianna said.  “I love the place. They are warm, welcoming and always there to help you figure out what’s going on. We always say the MIND Institute changed our lives.”