While April is Autism Awareness month, the researchers at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute work to understand and address the challenges of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) every day.
The Autism Institute’s mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals with autism of all ages through community-based action. To achieve this, the Autism Institute focuses on four core disciplines: modifiable ASD risk factors; early detection and intervention; life course outcomes; and policy and analytics.
Over the month of April, the Drexel News Blog will speak with experts from the Autism Institute in these core areas to shed light on their projects and what it means for individuals with autism.
Diana Robins, PhD, interim director and professor in the Autism Institute, leads the Early Detection and Intervention (EDI) research program.
What projects are you working on?
The EDI research program focuses on detecting ASD early, based on evidence that the earlier children are diagnosed and begin autism-specific treatment, the better their outcomes. For example, children who learn to speak fluently when they are young have more positive outcomes than children who remain minimally verbal.
To that end, we have a number of projects that engage community partners to detect young children at risk for ASD. Many of these partners provide primary care to young children, such as pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners. Our strategies to promote early detection include standardized screening, using tools including the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised, with Follow-Up (M-CHAT-R/F), as well as providers’ surveillance to detect ASD risk.
We also have early intervention projects, such as my colleague Giacomo Vivanti’s project examining a child’s fit to teaching approaches in different treatment models.
Our busiest project right now, Connecting the Dots, brings it all together, as we relate the practices in which primary care providers during toddler and preschool check-ups to diagnosis, early intervention, and subsequent readiness for kindergarten among children with ASD.
How did you become interested in autism research?
I was always interested in working with children and planned to become a child psychologist. As a high school student, I volunteered at a summer program at a local preschool serving children with special needs. The class I was assigned to included three children on the autism spectrum, as well as four to five children with other developmental issues.
I was immediately intrigued by the children with autism, who presented with a broad range of strengths and areas of challenge. When I went off to college, I selected autism topics for class assignments whenever possible and continued to work at the preschool program over my summer breaks.
Although I initially thought I would become a clinician working individually with children on the spectrum, when I was introduced to research later during my undergraduate training, I was hooked. After graduating, I pursued a degree in clinical neuropsychology with the intention of developing a program of research around autism. During my graduate training, we developed the M-CHAT, which led to my focus on early detection of ASD.
Why is Autism Awareness month important?
In general, it is essential to have awareness months or days for specific conditions and groups of people as long as there are misconceptions, lack of understanding, or reduced knowledge among the general population. Discrimination or lack of sensitivity diminishes quality of life; the best way to combat these challenges is through raising awareness and increasing knowledge.
I look forward to the day when there is so much understanding and support for individuals with autism that we no longer need to have Autism Awareness month, but at the present, we still have work to do.
Media interested in an interview with Diana Robins should contact Annie Korp at 215-571-4244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.