Autism Acceptance Month: Epidemiology and Risk Factors Expert

For April’s Autism Acceptance Month, Drexel News Blog is highlighting experts from Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, whose research ranges from studies to determine if prenatal environmental exposures cause pathologic changes in the developing brain, to evaluations of screening, diagnosis, and early intervention approaches for community-based settings, to projects connecting youth and young adults with employment and educational opportunities, and more.

Diana Schendel, PhD, is a professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and leads the Research Program in Modifiable Risk Factors for ASD. Her research has included tracking the changes in autism prevalence and the factors that might be behind those changes. Her primary focus is looking at a variety of risk factors during pregnancy that may be associated with autism, such as maternal health conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, and maternal exposure to air pollution.

“I am also interested in learning more about the role of family history in the development of autism, ranging across many conditions like ADHD, epilepsy, diabetes or asthma that occur in the immediate family or even in grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins,” said Schendel. “Many of my studies look at both particular risk factors, like maternal diabetes, and genetic factors and their links to autism or other neurodevelopmental conditions to better understand the interplay of genetic and non-genetic factors in the origins of neurodiversity.”

Her work in autism prevalence, risk factors and life course outcomes, using large population studies, often in international collaborations and more recently with a gene-environment perspective, gives her a broad view of autism epidemiology.

“Along the way I have gained a great appreciation for the complex origins of neurodiversity in which autism can be both similar to and different from other neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD,” added Schendel. “This amazing complexity reinforces my belief and of many others that to understand autism requires large collaborations, nationally and internationally, to get large enough studies to sort it all out.”

Schendel believes Autism Acceptance Month is key to highlighting advances towards better understanding autism and the needs of autistic persons and their families. The month highlights the unique strengths and challenges in autism, as well as corrects misconceptions about what autism is all about and life experiences of persons with autism.

“It focuses our attention on how far we have come in our understanding of autism as well as how far we still need to go and what kinds of studies or programs are needed to advance further,” said Schendel. “The more familiar and accepted autism becomes in the wider world through actions like Autism Acceptance Month, the farther we will advance in building a better place to live and work for all.”

Media interested in speaking with Schendel should contact Annie Korp, news manager, at 215-571-4244 or