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Autism Acceptance Month: Prenatal and Environmental Risk Factor 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.

Kristen Lyall, ScD, is an assistant professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Her work focuses on relationships between prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals, as well as maternal diet, and autism spectrum disorder and broader neurodevelopment.

“I am an epidemiologist; broadly speaking I’m looking for patterns to try and better understand environmental factors that may influence autism and related traits,” said Lyall. “The goals are to better understand contributing factors, mechanisms and pathways involved in development of complex outcomes.”

Lyall’s research also focuses on studying autism spectrum disorders (ASD) not as a categorical “yes/no” condition, but along a continuum of social communication, and trying to learn about relationships with factors in the environment across the population distribution of those traits. She has recently published a study related to this topic examining different ways of measuring ASD-related traits, and another examining relationships between parental age and these ASD-related traits.

Lyall has been trained in epidemiologic methods and has experience with how to design and analyze studies. Her work has focused primarily on the prenatal time period as a susceptibility window for environmental factors on the developing brain. Lyall has recently published a review summarizing another study she had been involved with that has examined the immune system’s role in autism, as well as other biological factors that may be involved in early development.

Lyall’s work spans several areas. “I have conducted studies examining maternal pregnancy complications, certain maternal medical and immune-mediated conditions, maternal diet, prenatal exposure to several classes of environmental chemicals, and conducted several scoping reviews across risk factors for autism,” said Lyall. Upcoming projects she is involved in seek to examine combined effects across these areas.

Lyall believes Autism Acceptance Month is an important way to increase awareness, highlight ongoing work and findings, and improve understanding so that families can be better supported. 

“I think it’s important to reiterate the message that, in studying prenatal factors, mothers are not to blame,” said Lyall. “We are studying complex, multifactorial processes and pathways in which genetic factors also play a strong role, with the ultimate goal not of reducing neurodiversity, but of better understanding it and supporting development.”

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

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