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Dr. Melanie Penner
Research Boost

Clinical investigator receives significant research grant to enhance the lives of children with autism

Rates of autism are on the rise; and along with that, lengthy waiting times for a diagnostic assessment of a child or youth. Many ASD diagnostic guidelines state that an expert team is required to give a diagnosis to a family. However, some children have been receiving a diagnosis from their GP such as a pediatrician. Interestingly, there have been no studies to date that look at how accurate these community-based clinician diagnoses are.

This is where Dr. Melanie Penner and her research team come in.

Funded by a new $260,000 CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) project grant, the team has launched a study that will compare the accuracy of ASD diagnoses made by community-based health practitioners and similar assessments made by expert teams.

In addition, they will examine various factors that are associated with an accurate diagnosis from general practitioners (GPs) such as a child’s sex, cultural background, the severity of their autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays and having a sibling with ASD.

“I’m thrilled to conduct this research that will evaluate the diagnostic care that children with ASD receive in the community. The results will have a direct impact on how we organize our diagnostic resources,” said Dr. Penner, a clinical investigator in Bloorview Research Institute’s  Autism Research Centre and the Bloorview Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Developmental Paediatrics.

Dr. Penner hopes to find out from this study whether community-based clinicians can independently and accurately diagnose autism spectrum disorders. In the future, she aims to develop educational workshops for health-care practitioners with regards to ASD diagnoses so that more children can be diagnosed in a community setting. This will hopefully decrease the wait times for families of children with ASD to be assessed.

This new research grant will help the developmental pediatrician continue her research and educational work to improve the province’s diagnostic capacity for autism disorder diagnoses in the community setting among other areas of research devoted to improving the quality of care that children with ASD receive.

In addition, Dr. Penner has been recently appointed, along with Dr. Jessica Brian, by the Ontario government to an implementation working group that will be responsible for providing input on the implementation and operationalization of the new Ontario Autism Program.

”Dr. Penner is a rising star in autism research. I’m thrilled that her impactful research is being supported by CIHR., said Dr. Tom Chau, director of the Bloorview Research Institute and vice-president of research at Holland Bloorview. “Knowledge generated from her study will ultimately lead to earlier diagnosis and care for children with ASD.”

 Read more about Dr. Penner’s work:

Clinician-scientist knits a new social fabric

Holland Bloorview and the University of Toronto give opportunity for two early investigators to take their research to the next level