Jayden Hannon playing on a playground

Making meaningful advances with autism

UC Davis MIND Institute program helps youngsters

Jayden Hannon is no wallflower. The 5-year-old boy has no problems being in a room full of people, unlike some of his peers who also have received an autism diagnosis. His problem-solving skills are above average.

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

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

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 says. “He always knew how to do things, but he kind of did things ‘outside the box.’ (EDSM therapists) played to his strengths.”

Preparing for everyday life

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.

Then, at 22 months, he started losing his speech.

Personalized curriculum

Jayden’s eventual autism diagnosis made him eligible for ESDM therapy, 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 says. “For that aspect I’m very grateful, because they’ve helped him be prepared for everyday life as a kid in school.”

The therapy program wound down at age 3. 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 also reached a unique milestone as the first child in his preschool class who was able to read.

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