Autism Awareness Month: Meet the Expert, James Connell, Behavioral Researcher

James Connell, PhD, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute’s Clinical Core, focuses on behavioral health of individuals with autism.

Throughout Autism Awareness month, the Drexel News Blog has spoken with experts from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, who are leading the autism research field.

As the month comes to a close, the researchers at the Autism Institute will continue their work to understand and address the challenges of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), while improving the quality of life for individuals with ASD.

James Connell, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Clinical Core in the Autism Institute with a focus on behavioral health of individuals with ASD.

What projects have you worked on at the Autism Institute?

There are two projects that I am very proud to have developed over the years in support of the Autism Institute’s public health focus and mission.

First, the institute provides autism evaluations for Philadelphia’s 3-5 year-old early intervention (EI) population through a contract with Elwyn, an EI provider. We are now going into our fourth year in this collaboration to bring evidence-based and gold standard evaluations to the city’s EI children who are deemed at-risk for ASD.

Shortly after the institute opened, Elwyn leadership reached out to collaborate. We started the partnership in 2015 and began with just two evaluations per week. We are now doing eight evaluations a week and will extend our partnership for another year in July. Our clinical work with Elwyn, which has led to additional funding from WaWa, helps parents of minimally verbal children teach their children to speak to them.

Second, I reached out to Renee Turchi, of St. Christopher’s Hospital Special Needs Clinic, to conceptualize a project that brought psychologists and behavior analysts into the “medical home” through a physician’s office. The goal is to imbed highly skilled and trained behavioral health clinicians into the physician’s office so that when the physician evaluates parent concerns and children’s health they have another line of referral for issues that fall into behavioral health, rather than physical health.

For example, a child comes into the clinic and the parent says, “my child will only eat mac and cheese.” The physician looks over the child and sees no ear, nose or throat concerns, the bowels are not impacted, and the teeth and gums are in good shape. So, the physician has a few potential specialist referrals, like ear, nose, throat or gastrointestinal, all within the hospital – but no behavioral health specialists to determine if this is a behavioral health issue.

Now children at St. Christopher’s have a psychologist and behavior analyst who know about these types of issues and will recommend a totally different course of evidence-based assessment and treatment. Going into its second year, this project has been successful in helping parents and families get a full spectrum of services in the hospital setting.

How did you become interested in autism research?

In 1995, I started working at a bio-behavioral unit (BBU) that accepted children with severe self-injurious, aggressive and destructive behavior for assessment and treatment using a combination of pharmacological and behavioral intervention. At the time, I was an undergrad studying behavior analysis. As a line therapist in the BBU, I had a number of cases in my workload, including many of all ages on the spectrum. Some of these kids were there for over six months. I met their families on weekends and evenings when they visited. These patients engaged in severe behavior and I was fortunate to successfully treat many of them and help them return to their homes, to their parents who were overwhelmed with joy to have their children back.

The kids and families I worked and grew with moved me in a very deep way. As time passed and I became more experienced, I noticed that my emotional and intellectual sensitivities matched well with many on the spectrum. It’s hard to explain, but little kids on the spectrum and I seem to be able communicate in subtle cues and nods, often without spoken word. We are comfortable with each other. Perhaps, I just learned to take the time to watch, listen, wait and when the time is right, convey nonverbally my understanding, care and acceptance. And I know they do the same.

Why is Autism Awareness Month important?

The world needs to know these people are present, looking for acceptance, tolerance, opportunity, respect and love – just like us. They want jobs, family, a few friends they can count on, and a life like everyone else. And, that the similarities far outnumber the differences if you just stop, listen, reflect, accept and be there for them.

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

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