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Reflecting on the Past Year at the Autism Institute: A Letter from the Director

A shiny metallic background with words that read Looking Back at 2023

December 14, 2023

As we approach the end of another remarkable year, I am honored to reflect on the incredible journey we have shared at the AJ Drexel Autism Institute. This year, we were dedicated to the relentless pursuit of our mission to pioneer research to better understand autism and drive impactful change in our communities and worldwide. We do this by engaging in science, education, and community partnerships to improve lives of autistic individuals and their loved ones.

We welcomed a new Life Course Outcomes (LCO) Research Program Leader and Associate Professor Matthew Lerner, PhD. Dr. Lerner spent the last ten years in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, where he directed the Social Competence and Treatment Lab. He was also a founder and Research Director of the Stony Brook Autism Initiative and the Stony Brook LEND Center Co-Founder. His research is dedicated to understanding the processes underlying youths’ social development. We look forward to his continued work as the LCO leader in the coming year.

Researchers from the Policy, Analytics, and Community research program (also known as the Policy & Analytics Center; PAC) at the Autism Institute published two National Autism Indicators Reports. The first published in March 2023 was an Introduction to Medicaid and Autism. This report explores how autistic individuals use Medicaid and how their service use changes across the lifespan using data from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) from 2008-2016. The second report, Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic, published in July 2023, examines changes in access and disruptions to healthcare services for autistic children and adults during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristen Lyall, ScD, was awarded a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program grant to continue follow-up of children enrolled in three cohort studies dedicated to understanding outcomes among younger siblings of autistic children. This study will be the first of its kind to follow children from these families from gestation into early adulthood. Public Health and Autism Science advancing Equitable Strategies across the life course (PHASES), an NIH grant led by Diana Robins, PhD, and Diana Schendel, PhD, entered its second year of funding. The team created its Community Advisory Boards (CAB), comprising diverse stakeholders side-by-side with the researchers. The lived experience of CAB members improves the grant’s science and ensures it will have real-world impact. In addition to project-specific work, the CABs had a workshop with the Healthy African American Families to learn how Community Partnered Participatory Research works and how each member should be involved.

In addition to our research endeavors, our dedication to education and community outreach remains unwavering. The Clinical Core’s ADOS-2 virtual trainings have had a global impact, training over 700 individuals from all over the United States, including all 50 states and 17 countries worldwide. The program has grown exponentially since its initial offering in 2021, with more than a 200% increase. The Philadelphia Autism Project at the Autism Institute had its 8th Seed Awards, which impacts under-resourced populations living with autism in Philadelphia. You can view a map of impact in the Philadelphia area by visiting their site. We also saw Pennsylvania make a significant move towards mental health parity for autism coverage. The Shapiro Administration has mandated health insurers to provide coverage for autism benefits starting January 1, 2024, aligning with mental health parity laws.

I extend my deepest gratitude to every member of our institute—our researchers, staff, partners, and the broader community—for their unwavering support and dedication. Together, we have made significant strides, and I am confident that we will continue to pave the way for a brighter, more inclusive future.

I wish you all a joyful holiday season and a prosperous new year.

Diana Robins, PhD, Director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute