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Diana Schendel, PhD

Leader, Modifiable Factors in Autism Research Program

Diana Schendel, PhD, is professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and leads the Research Program in Modifiable Factors in Autism. She has investigated key public health issues in autism including population-level prevalence trends over time and in different countries, and factors underlying the trends such as changes in age of diagnosis, diagnostic criteria and reporting practices. To better understand the mechanisms contributing to autism and identify opportunities to reduce disability, she has used large, population-based data sources in the US and abroad to investigate patterns of autism risk across a wide array of pre- and perinatal factors (e.g., multi-generational family morbidity and parental age risk, birth weight and gestational age patterns, maternal prenatal smoking, medication use, infection and infertility treatment and sociodemographic factors), as well as postnatal factors such as childhood hospitalization for infection and co-occurring conditions and their effects on mortality risk. More recently she has begun to investigate whether genes linked to autism modify the effects of non-genetic risk factors, such as air pollutant exposure or maternal cardiometabolic health during pregnancy, and the interplay between genes and family history in autism risk.

In order to better understand the complex risk patters in autism which need large studies, she has promoted both multi-site and multinational collaborations and played lead roles in some of the largest epidemiological autism studies to date including CDC’s Centers for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Epidemiology (CADDRE) and CADDRE’s Study to Explore Early Development (SEED); the International Collaboration for Autism Registry Epidemiology (iCARE) and the multi-national MINERvA Network (Multigenerational Familial and Environmental Risk for Autism). For the Autism Spectrum Disorders in the European Union (ASDEU) project (20 collaborator groups in 14 countries) she led a multi-national registry-based prevalence investigation and a multi-national survey of services for autistic adults with the aim of targeting opportunities for services improvement.

Dr. Schendel received her PhD in in biological anthropology with cross-over to epidemiologic methods. She first served as Senior Epidemiologist in the Woburn Environment and Birth Study (WEBS), then joined the CDC focusing on public health surveillance and research in developmental disabilities, primarily autism and cerebral palsy. At CDC she received the Charles C. Shepard Science Award (CDC’s highest science award) and, as part of the Autism Public Health Response Team, received the CDC and ATSDR Group Honor Award (Research Operational) and the HHS Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service. In 2013, she joined the faculty of Aarhus University in Denmark as professor in psychiatric epidemiology and senior researcher in the Lundbeck Foundation Initiative for Integrative Psychiatric Research (iPSYCH).