The room is small. There is a countertop where the mother who lives here prepares food for herself and her two young children, a 4-year-old who has autism and an infant. There are two plastic milk crates outside the doorway in the dirt, used to sit and visit with neighbors or pulled into the tiny floor space. The milk crates and a double bed are the only furniture in the small house and the only furniture that can fit.

Lying on towels in a plastic laundry tub on the floor, the baby is sleeping. Sally Rogers sits beside the basket on one of the crates. She extends her hand to caress the sleeping child.

The room is the entirety of the home, in a township in Cape Town, South Africa. It is the spring of 2015.

“This is the only open space in her little home — this area about four by four feet — where she cooks, where the baby sleeps in a plastic basket, where she bathes herself and her children, using this tub, where she sits on the floor to eat with her son, dresses him — on the floor,” says Rogers, a UC Davis developmental psychologist. “Everything happens right here.”

The room is lit by a small lamp — and in that fact, Rogers finds hope.

“She had electricity,” Rogers says. “She had a small TV and a VCR and a smart phone. And I realized that if we had (autism) intervention materials on YouTube, she could have used them the next day.

“That was a very important experience for me,” she says.

Rogers is one of the world’s leading researchers into effective therapies for children with autism spectrum disorder or ASD — she delivered a keynote address at the International Meeting for Autism Research in May. A professor of psychiatry at the UC Davis MIND Institute, she and her colleague Geri Dawson of Duke University created the Early Start Denver Model, acclaimed as a highly effective therapy for toddlers with autism which has also been used in children as young as 6 months. For some of those children, it has been found to eliminate symptoms by the time the child is 3.

Rogers visited South Africa to explore how to bring ESDM help to families in that country. The intervention teaches parents how to help guide their children’s development and is used worldwide, with training materials translated into 12 languages. Rogers and her staff hold ESDM seminars in many countries on several continents, and multiple training sessions take place every month all over the world.

Now she is turning her attention to further democratizing access to the intervention by making ESDM materials available on the Internet — such as placing them on YouTube — where they would be available to everyone, everywhere.

“There isn’t a MIND Institute available for most children in the world with autism,” Rogers says. “Most children with autism live in China, Africa and India,” places with the world’s largest populations. “In South Africa, there are no intervention services of any kind for children with ASD under 6, regardless of the circumstances.”

Despite that fact, the mother she visited was deeply committed to helping her child, “hungry for knowledge” — like mothers everywhere.

“I was very moved by this young mother with her newborn and 4-year-old, and how much time and effort she spent to take him to clinic on the bus, leaving her baby with a neighbor, to try and help him,” Rogers says. “She wanted the same thing for her child that all mothers want. She wants him to be able to speak, to take him places and have him behave well, to go to school, to have some sort of work to do as an adult.

“Those are goals of all parents of children with autism. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our interventions culturally specific. But I am learning that there are some universals, and that makes helping these children and parents a little bit easier,” Rogers says.

Rogers’ colleague Laurie Vismara, who trained at the MIND Institute, now is an adjunct assistant professor at York University in Toronto and is working with ESDM in that city. She has conducted multiple studies that found that parents can learn ESDM techniques online as well as in person and that their children benefitted rapidly from parental efforts.

Rogers also is working with Aubyn Stahmer, associate professor of psychiatry and expert in delivering effective autism interventions in communities, who recently joined the MIND Institute and accompanied Rogers to South Africa. Through a new study, they will research how to deliver autism treatments to disadvantaged families in California, Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

Rogers is the author of two books on autism intervention with Dawson and Vismara: Early Start Denver Model for Young Children with Autism: Promoting Language, Learning, and Engagement and An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn.

Learn more: Early Start Lab


Jayden Hannon and his mother, Adrianna, playing on a playground.

ESDM in action

Meet a Sacramento boy who’s showing early success at school with the help of Early Start Denver Model therapy, co-developed by UC Davis MIND Institute researchers. Read More...