Drexel researcher wins $11 million autism grant

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Diana Robins (back, left) works with young children as a part of her early detection and intervention work.

A researcher with Drexel University has been awarded a grant of over $11 million to investigate if early detection and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) leads to improved readiness for school. The university announced the award Thursday.

Diana Robins, a professor and research program leader in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, will use the Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health to direct research that will involve more than 8,000 children over five years.

“Research indicates that children with autism respond best to intensive autism-specific treatment that involves one-on-one delivery from an expert, with specific goals targeting communication, social engagement, and play,” said Robins. “Research also shows that children who start autism-specific intervention at younger ages make better progress than children who start treatment when they are older.”

The study will involve teams of researchers from Drexel, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Connecticut. Local children, as well as children from the other research areas, will be studied after they receive autism-specific treatment to see how outcomes are affected by the time they reach kindergarten.

Among the areas that will be examined are overall kindergarten readiness, social interaction skills, and the quality of interactions they have with their parents.

Robins said her goal is to provide evidence to influence policy regarding early detection of autism, which she said is critical.

This award is Drexel’s second ACE grant. Drexel is one of only four universities to have won more than one of these awards.

Craig Newschaffer, founding director of the Drexel Autism Institute and past ACE recipient, said Robins’ project “responds to a gap in the evidence base around early detection and intervention highlighted by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force and will have major impact on practice.”

A developmental disability that ranges from mild to severe, autism can affect social interactions and communication, and can involve repetitive behaviors. Its rate in the United States is estimated at one in 68 children and is expected to continue to rise.