Children on the autism spectrum wanted for study

May 4, 2021

Autism researcher Hannah Waddington is looking for 48 Wellington families to take part in a study to test the limits of a play-based therapy that is achieving great results for young children.

Hannah, a Victoria University of Wellington educational psychologist and senior lecturer, is looking for families with children between the ages of one and four-and-a-half years to be part of the New Zealand-first clinical study.

She says a child may already have a diagnosis of autism, or a parent or guardian may suspect their child is showing signs of autism.

“Most studies using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) to support children on the spectrum were done overseas and involved several years of therapy for more than 20 hours a week. We want to see if only three hours a week of therapy and parent support over a six-month period improves outcomes for children and their whānau,” Hannah says.

The ESDM uses play to build positive relationships and aims to boost child language, social and cognitive skills.

“It’s among the most promising early intervention for children. It just fits with New Zealand so well.” Hannah says she’s excited about developing a way of working with ESDM that makes it even more of a perfect fit for us.

Hannah is already enrolling families for the research. Twenty-four of the 48 families will be offered the ESDM therapy. The other 24 families will receive standard treatment within the community, support with referrals to existing services, and monthly ‘check-ins’ with a researcher. The selection is done on a random basis and the families who aren’t selected for ESDM will have the opportunity to receive this therapy after the study period.

Families will be referred for an in-depth pre-assessment, which will cover their child’s engagement, communication and participation in daily activities, as well as the parents’ stress levels and their overall quality of life. At the time of the pre-assessment the families won’t know which group they will be assigned to.

“The therapy begins with us assessing the needs of the child and their whānau, beginning by playing with the child, getting to know them, and choosing priority goals in their development. Then we target each therapy session to these goals,” Hannah says.

The sessions include activities that integrate skills such as block play, where the therapist works on copying behaviour with blocks, using words to ask for the blocks and sharing the blocks. “With parents, we give them the skills to continue this therapy at home, working with them on a different goal each week,” Hannah says.

“It’s fun. The kid has fun. The parent has fun doing it.”

The three-year study was awarded $250,000 by the Health Research Council of New Zealand last year. It is also being supported by the Autism New Zealand Autism Resource Centre and Hannah is working with Professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon Kids Institute in Australia.

“We want to evaluate whether this is beneficial and, if so, we have evidence this three hours’ therapy is something the Government should fund. We want to train more therapists and make ESDM more widely available across New Zealand.

“I can’t be advocating for 10 hours’ support per week. There aren’t the people and there isn’t the money.” To find out more about the study, contact Hannah at

Caption: Photograph Jelleke Vanooteghem - Unsplash.