Karen F. Heffler, MD is a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry, Drexel University College of Medicine, with primary interest in modifiable risk factors and early childhood development. She completed her medical school and residency training at the University of Pennsylvania, and she began her career as an ophthalmologist. Over a decade ago, she changed focus and began to participate in research involving early childhood development and autism. The rising rates of autism and her own son’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder impacted this decision.
Her review of the literature on autism, parent-child interactions, effects of digital media on social interaction, early post-natal brain development, neuroplasticity, and brain development in autism informs her research. Along with colleagues at Drexel, she researches experiential factors including early digital media use, social experiences, and developmental outcomes. Her group published the first prospective study to show the association between early-life digital media exposure and subsequent autism-like symptoms.
Dr. Heffler and her colleague Lori Frome M.Ed. developed a parent training program on digital media, social interaction, and child development, studying the potential benefit of screen reduction with focus on social engagement in young children with autism and high media exposure. Dr. Heffler speaks at national and international child development and research conferences, and regularly provides talks to pediatricians, psychiatrists, and early-intervention provider groups. Dr. Heffler and her research colleagues have significantly contributed to the early childhood development and autism literature with many publications.