A Public Health Approach to Autism, in Philadelphia

Sure, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute just received $3.6 million from an anonymous donor, but this isn’t your regular, everyday autism grant.

While other outfits seek to fund neuroscientific research into the roots of autism—for instance, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative’s Simon Simplex Collection—the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is all about a softer, public-health approach. It’s more about empowering folks with autism to live positive lives.

“We believe people on the autism spectrum are valuable members of our communities,” says Paul Shattuck, PhD, program leader. “We see an urgent need for research aimed directly at understanding what strategies, beyond clinical interventions, promote positive outcomes and prevent negative onesboth for people on the autism spectrum and the families and communities they are part of.”

It’s an interesting angle, and it reminds us of another funder in the autism space we reported on a while back: Ed Scott, who created a center at the Florida Institute of Technology that explores the strategies for parents, teachers, and others that are most effective for dealing with autistic children. 

Related: Why This Tech Leader Takes a Different Approach to Autism 

So many of the philanthropic dollars spent on this issue focus on research that comes at autism from a biomedical angle. It’s all about finding a “cure" by tracking down the disorder’s genetic roots, or finding some clue within, say, one’s immune system that leads to autism.  

While there’s no doubt that autism isn’t typical, there are drawbacks to treating it as a burden and a disorder, or regarding people with autism as in need of “fixing.” Frankly, we like that there’s someone out there who’s all about helping society work with autism, finding ways to ease difficult transition times and provide support for all the autistic adults out in the world.

Because even if we find a cure for autism tomorrow, there will still be as many as 5 million American adults living with the disorder, and society needs to find a way to accommodate them. “Finding ways for people on the autism spectrum to pursue fulfilling lives as full members of the community is vitally important work,” said Drexel University President John A. Fry.

Thus, this gift is going directly into Drexel’s Life Course Outcomes research program, which pursues four key goals linked to addressing quality of life issues for autistic people:

  • Assessing community quality of service and outcomes through the Indicators Initiative
  • Examining innovative approaches to provision and policies with the Promising Practices Initiative
  • Expanding the field of useful research through the Research Leadership Initiative
  • Undertaking studies that discover how life unfolds over a long period of time for people on the autism spectrum with the Long-Term Knowledge Initiative.

“Ultimately, we need to know if the billions spent to move the needle on life outcomes like employment, health, community contribution, and social participation are having a measurable impact,” said Shattuck. “This gift positions the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute to lead the way in figuring out how to strengthen the connection between efforts and outcomes so we know what’s working for whom.”