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Opening Population Health Spotlight Discusses Public Health Approach to Autism

October 15, 2015

A trio of experts from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute kicked off the first Population Health Spotlight of the 2015-2016 academic year in October, describing how the Institute is applying the three level population health prevention model to autism spectrum disorders.

The Institute is working to:

  • prevent disease through understanding and modifying risk factors to lower occurrence of adverse outcomes,
  • identify and intervene as early as possible in those effected, and
  • promote optimal quality of life for those living with this complex problem. 

A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Director Craig Newschaffer, PhD, professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and associate dean for Research in the Dornsife School of Public Health, noted that the economic costs of autism in the United States have climbed to $250 billion per year. 

He described two studies where researchers are trying to use large epidemiologic data to address questions about possible risk factors, and a smaller study to find out mechanisms by which environmental factors operate. For example, the team is looking at endocrine disrupting chemicals — more than a million pounds are released into the environment annually — as a potential exposure of interest. 

Early Detection and Intervention Research Program Area Leader Diana Robins, PhD, associate professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and Community Health and Prevention in the Dornsife School of Public Health, discussed ways to bridge the gap between when parents often begin to sense that something isn’t quite right with their child and when their child is diagnosed with autism. In the United States, the average age of diagnosis is after 4th birthday, yet parents often see signs when their children are 1-2 years old. Robins shared outcomes related to the screening tool she developed, the M-CHAT, noting that when healthcare providers use a screen and refer system, children can be diagnosed up to 2 years earlier than average. Since recent research has shown that starting intensive behavioral therapy before age 2 can improve outcomes for children with autism, this early detection and connection to services can be critically important for families.

Life Course Outcomes Research Program Area Leader, Paul Shattuck, PhD, Associate Professor, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and Health Management and Policy, explained how his team uses population-based data to explain how many people are affected by a condition, as well as assess gaps between what kinds of help people need compared to what kinds of help that they receive. 

“It’s been my experience that legislators, policy-makers and agency leaders rely heavily on this work to plan new programs and understand the magnitude of problems they are coping with,” said Shattuck. The team is now posting research in an accessible format on it’s new Autism Life Course Outcomes website.

This spring, Newschaffer and colleagues will offer an elective to Dornsife undergraduate and graduate students entitled Autism as a Public Health Challenge.