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An Introduction to the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute

October 15, 2014

The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute was established in July 2012, thanks to support from the Charles and Barbara Close Foundation in partnership with the University. Craig Newschaffer, PhD, founding Director and professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Drexel’s School of Public Health,  is also the principal investigator of  the NIH Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) research network that implements Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI), a large cohort study designed specifically to study pre-, peri-,and neonatal autism risk factors and biomarkers by following mothers of children with Autism at the start of subsequent pregnancies. Gloria Donnelly, PhD, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions, serves as one of the Executive Council members of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

The mission of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is to “apply the public health sciences to questions whose answers can improve the quality of life for individuals with ASD and their families.” The goal of the Institute is to “assemble an interdisciplinary team of world class researchers who will employ the various disciplines of public health science to generate and translate knowledge about Autism's character, causes, and consequences into community-based action that will improve the lives of individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families.”

The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute has several projects that have been in progress since the Institute’s inception. First is the Mobile REACH Program, which involves a mobile assessment unit that is capable of traveling into communities to research, educate, and help treat individuals with ASD and their families. The second project is the Millville School District Consultation, which is bringing evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions to general education and special education classrooms using a systems approach. K-5 students are being screened to determine which students are at-risk and thus are being exposed to intensive interventions using tiered approaches.

The Institute is also involved in the Graduate Programs, the mission of which is to, “Develop highly specialized consultants who are capable of sophisticated assessment and subsequent intervention development in mental health and behavioral health community settings in the area and across the country.” Another current  A.J. Drexel Autism Institute project’s is the Mindfun Project, funded by a  $250,000 Shire Pharmaceuticals grant to develop behavioral health management tools. Several Drexel professors will embed activities that rely on executive functioning abilities such as time-management, problem-solving, planning, and organization into a game called “Mindfun.” The goal of this project is to “teach topographically similar and functionally related skills in the game world that are very similar to tasks in the real world (such as cleaning one’s room, getting dressed, brushing teeth), and use mom or dad as an agent to transfer the skill.”

The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is also involved in quite a number of other ongoing research projects. The research can currently be categorized into three main areas:

  • Research in Modifiable Autism Spectrum Disorder Risk Factors;
  • Research in Early Detection and Intervention; and
  • Research in Life Course Outcomes.

The Research Program on Modifiable Autism Risk Factors seeks to discover exposures or behaviors that, if reduced, eliminated, or changed, would lower the autism spectrum disorder disability, impairment, and morbidity. This program includes initiatives in epidemiology and exposure biology. The Research Program in Early Detection and Intervention aims to better link early detection with early intervention research.

Research studies in the Life Course Outcomes Program are aimed at answering a range of important questions, such as:

  • Are children getting diagnosed and entering needed services at an early age?
  • Do adults on the spectrum go to college or find work?
  • Can they achieve social success?
  • What kinds of services do people with ASD and their families receive compared to what they need?

In fact, the Studies in the Life Course Outcomes Program recently received an anonymous grant in the amount of $3.6 million to launch four major research initiatives. These include:

  • The Indicators Initiative, meant to asses community and national indicators of services and outcomes,
  • The Promising Practices Initiative, to examine innovative approaches for creating positive outcomes for individuals on the autism spectrum,
  • The Research Leadership Initiative, which expands the field of useful research by training additional scholars, and
  • The Long-Term Knowledge Initiative, to conduct large-scale studies that discover how life unfolds over a long period of time for people on the autism spectrum and their families.

To learn more about the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, please click here.

Please join us for our conference on November 8, 2014, Creating Integrated Healthcare Services for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Click here for conference information and to register.

By Mahmoud Shurbaji ‘15