Autism Awareness Month: Meet the Expert, Kristen Lyall, Modifiable Risk Factor Researcher

Kristen Lyall, SCD, works in the Modifiable Risk Factors research program, focusing on environmental exposures during pregnancy.

During Autism Awareness month, the Drexel News Blog has spoken with leaders in the autism research field from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.

The Autism Institute’s mission is to understand and address the challenges of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), while improving the quality of life for individuals of all ages with ASD. To that end, researchers at the Institute focus on four core disciplines: modifiable risk factors; early detection and intervention; life course outcomes; and policy and analytics.

Kristen Lyall, SCD, is an assistant professor at the Autism Institute and works in the Modifiable Risk Factors research program.

What is your research focus?

As an epidemiologist, I examine a range of environmental exposures that occur during the prenatal period along with the development of ASD. Most of my work focuses on maternal risk factors like diet, environmental chemicals, as well as pregnancy complications. In working together with our exposure science laboratory, I am also interested in biomarkers of these exposures, and better understanding the pathways and mechanisms underlying them.

How did you become interested in autism research?

I first became interested in autism as an undergraduate student, when I was working for a local counseling clinic as a behavioral aide for a young man with high-functioning autism. Through discussions with his mother, as well as other parents of children on the spectrum later in my career, I was really drawn to the desire to better answer their questions about why and how autism occurs. My interactions with his family complemented coursework in human genetics, biology, and psychology. As a very complex condition, autism really interested me in all the questions surrounding it spanning these fields.

During my graduate training in epidemiology – a field that really merged a lot of those earlier interests of mine in an applied way – I took on the development of a follow-up study of autism nested within a large cohort study, and I’ve stayed in the field ever since.

Why is Autism Awareness month important?

Awareness months are important in reducing or dispelling certain misconceptions and increasing understanding. The prevalence of autism has rapidly increased over recent decades, and with increasing commonness comes the need for increased recognition of the unique strengths and challenges individuals on the spectrum have, as well as a need for better understanding about what we know (and don’t yet know!) about autism. Autism is a complex condition with no one cause, and though there are core features that define autism, individuals with a diagnosis of autism are not all the same.  

I also think it’s important to recognize that autism is something that impacts the entire family unit, and that people – both those with and without autism – have different ways of experiencing and interacting in the social world.

This series also includes interviews with A.J. Drexel Autism Institute interim director and professor, Diana Robins; assistant professor, Nathaniel Snyder; and director of the Policy and Analytics Center, Lindsay Shea.

Media interested in an interview with Kristen Lyall should contact Annie Korp at 215-571-4244 or