A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Researcher Awarded $11 Million Grant to Investigate Early Intervention Efforts

Two children with a group of adults and toys
Diana Robins (back, left) working with young children as a part of her early detection and intervention work. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

A researcher with Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute will receive more than $11 million to study the benefits of early detection of autism through a prestigious grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health.

The Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grant for $11.4 million will fund work by Diana Robins, PhD, seeking to link improved outcomes for children with autism as they enter school directly to early detection and treatment. Robins is a professor and the research program area leader of Early Detection and Intervention in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

“Early detection is critical for children with autism spectrum disorder to facilitate autism-specific early intervention,” Robins said.

Getting autism-specific treatment instead of just general treatment, like speech therapy, is important for young children on the spectrum.

“Research indicates that children with autism respond best to intensive autism-specific treatment that involves one-on-one delivery from an expert, with specific goals targeting communication, social engagement, and play,” Robins explained. “Research also shows that children who start autism-specific intervention at younger ages make better progress than children who start treatment when they are older.” 

That progress includes better outcomes in social and cognitive functioning, mitigation of disabilities over their entire lifespan, and improved well-being and self-sufficiency. So it would follow that utilizing early detection strategies in regular doctor appointments would lead to better progress for children on the spectrum.

This study is seeking to show evidence of that. It will link early childhood detection strategies to early intervention to see how children’s outcomes are affected by the time they reach kindergarten. Among the areas that will be looked at once the children in the study reach age 5 are their overall kindergarten readiness, social interaction skills, and the quality of interactions they have with their parents, among other outcomes.

“We will measure outcomes right after treatment and again as children turn five years old and prepare to begin kindergarten,” Robins said.

She will lead teams of investigators from Drexel, the University of California, Davis — principal investigator, Aubyn Stahmer and the University of Connecticut — principal investigator, Deborah Fein. More than 8,000 children are hoped to be examined for the study. The plan is to begin work immediately, with the study set to run for five years.

This is the second time Drexel University has been awarded an ACE grant – making it one of only four universities to receive more than one of these awards. Robins’ grant is part of the third cycle of ACE grants, but Craig Newschaffer, PhD, founding director of the Autism Institute, received funding in the first round a decade ago.  That funding established the EARLI (Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation) network, a project that is still generating new information about  environmental risk factors of autism today.  

“I am so pleased that Dr. Robins has received this ACE award,” Newschaffer remarked. “Her project responds to a gap in the evidence base around autism early detection and intervention highlighted by the US Preventive Services Task force and will have a major impact on practice because of the attention the Taskforce will pay to her findings.”

Robins’ goal for this latest ACE project is to provide evidence to influence policy around early detection of autism. 

“We hope that our work directly links early detection strategies that pediatricians can use during well-child check-ups to improved outcomes,” Robins said. “If we can connect these directly, we hope to increase access to early detection and early intervention for all children with autism spectrum disorder.”