Drexel University has received a gift of $1.5 million from the Charles and Barbara Close Foundation, founded by Drexel alumnus Charles Close (’36), to help establish the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. The Institute is the nation’s first autism center focused on public health science.
“Public health science brings population-focused strategies to autism research. The ultimate goal is to discover, develop and implement approaches for preventing the morbidity and disability associated with autism,” said Dr. Marla J. Gold, dean of Drexel’s School of Public Health.
Autism is believed to affect at least 700,000, or one in 110, U.S. children and perhaps up to 4 million U.S. adults, many of whom are undiagnosed.
Under the leadership of Dr. Craig Newschaffer, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute will build capacity to conduct research that addresses the larger picture of autism’s impact throughout the lifespan on individuals, families, schools, social service systems and communities.
“Our approach will range from research focused on discovering preventable causes of the morbidity and disability that comes with autism, to work designed to find out how intervention and supportive approaches can be effectively scaled up to do the most good in our communities,” said Newschaffer. “Over the next several years we will bring outstanding public health scientists to Drexel to join our Institute team and to partner with the range of organizations in the region that share our commitment to autism.”
As the Institute grows, areas of emphasis will include:
• Environmental risk factor epidemiology and exposure biology: Discovering preventable causes.
• Early diagnosis and intervention: Finding ways to help children with autism receive services more quickly and efficiently, and spreading the most effective intervention approaches throughout the community, including underserved areas.
• Adolescent and adult population outcomes: Providing a better understanding of how adolescents and young adults with autism can lead maximally independent and fulfilling lives.
• Risk communication: Creating new ways to share information about autism that puts scientific accuracy at the forefront but respects community perspectives.
The Institute builds on the faculty, resources and research already at Drexel in bringing a public health approach to autism science. Most notably, the School of Public Health is home to the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI), directed by Newschaffer, which is one of only eleven NIH Autism Center of Excellence projects – and the only one built on a public health science approach.
“The emotional and economic costs of autism to our society are enormous,” said Drexel president John A. Fry. “Drexel has a responsibility as a leading research university to tackle grave challenges like autism, and I am pleased that the Close Foundation sees the value in our efforts.”
Funds from the Close Foundation gift will support recruiting new faculty and development of Institute facilities, including dedicated clinical space, laboratory space, office space and public areas.