Drexel University has received a $1.5 million donation to help fund a new autism research center. The center will take a public-health approach in exploring this developmental disorder.

Drexel University's Craig Newschaffer, who will head the new A.J. Drexel Autism Center, says a public-health perspective means the center will focus on prevention and population.

Prevention, says Newschaffer, means looking at both preventing autism itself by understanding risk factors, and preventing bad outcomes for those who live with it.

"Prevention can happen very early on in discovering things that can be avoided by children, or perhaps even by pregnant mothers that will reduce the risk," said Newschaffer. "Prevention can also happen much later in terms of diagnosing the early signs of autism and intervening early to prevent the adverse consequences."

Population means examining how this disorder affects those who live with it, and what can be done to help them thrive.

"Focusing on how interventions and strategies that have been proven effective in sort of tightly controlled lab settings can be brought out, scaled up, and effectively implemented in the larger community," explained Newschaffer.

For example, Newschaffer says researchers don't know enough about how to help adults living with autism.

Other autism researchers in Philadelphia welcome the new center as a great addition to existing research programs.

"We already have such strengths here in thinking about the genetics of autism, and how the brain functions and is structured in people with autism," said Dr. David Mandell of the Center for Autism Research. He added that Drexel's new center will further establish Philadelphia as a hub for autism research.

Pediatrician Dr. Wendy Ross, who heads Autism Inclusion Resources, said this approach extends beyond finding a cause and a cure for autism.

"I think it's great to start looking at public health, and using that to identify other needs that families living with autism have," she said.

Newschaffer says the center will start recruiting scientists now and will begin its work this summer.