Odom Wins International Award for Child Development Research

December 9, 2013
Samuel L. Odom

Samuel L. Odom

The Theodor Hellbrugge Foundation has awarded FPG director Samuel L. Odom the 2013 Arnold Lucius Gesell Prize for an outstanding career in the field of child development. Noting Odom’s “extraordinary contributions” in research and service, the foundation presented him with the award at an international conference convened to celebrate the prize.

The Gesell Prize carries an award of 10,000 euros, a medal forged in silver, and a legacy alongside the international leaders in child development research. Only a dozen others had received the award before Odom.

“I’m extremely honored to receive the Arnold Lucius Gesell Prize and to be added to a list of people whose work I’ve deeply admired,” said Odom, whose distinguished career has focused most recently on studying autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Seventeen years ago, the foundation conceived the prize in memory of its namesake, Arnold Lucius Gesell, the esteemed pediatrician and psychologist whose accomplishments included founding the Yale Clinic of Child Development in the 1930s.

Past winners of the prize have hailed from Prague, St. Petersburg, London, and Zurich, in addition to the U.S. Recipients have included T. Berry Brazelton, the Harvard University MD whose publications include the popular Touchpoints book series, a guide for parents to their children’s phases of development, and Marc H. Bornstein, the head of child and family research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Emmy Werner, the University of California-Davis researcher best known for piloting a 40-year study of nearly 700 Hawaiian infants, won the prize in 2001. “Dr. Odom’s work, which I greatly admire, clearly deserves the Gesell Prize,” said Werner.

Autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities, inclusion, and special education are among Odom’s areas of expertise, which he cultivated over a long career that originally led him as a University of Tennessee graduate student to Gesell’s writing.

“Arnold Gesell’s work was fundamental,” said Odom, recalling his first exposure to the Yale pediatrician’s research. “He was one of the first to chart the course of child development, clearly defining milestones for young kids as they grow, as well as helping to assess what might be typical or atypical.”

Not long after his introduction to Gesell’s work, Odom’s budding career took him into research, too. Over the years he subsequently wrote or co-wrote over 100 publications, and he edited or co-edited 10 books on early childhood intervention and developmental disabilities. He often explored topics related to early childhood inclusion and preschool readiness, before later focusing on autism spectrum disorders, the epicenter of his current projects.

Odom’s previous awards include honors for his teaching, service, and research, and Congressional committees twice have called upon him for expert testimony. But it was his term on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Educational Programs for Children with Autism that led him to turn his attention primarily to autism.

Samuel L. OdomSince 2006, he has directed the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, served as a professor in UNC’s School of Education, and led several seminal projects. His recent work has addressed the effectiveness of a variety of approaches for children with ASD, including peer-mediated interventions, independent work systems, and other strategies and techniques.

He currently heads the pioneering Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, which is developing a comprehensive treatment model specifically designed for high school students—the first of its kind. In addition, he also has served as principal investigator for the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (NPDC). An FPG team recently completed an exhaustive review of the latest science for the NPDC, offering crucial guidance to parents and professionals about the most effective practices to use with children and youth with ASD.

“It’s an exciting time to focus on children with ASD,” said Odom (shown receiving the award). “The research on the most effective behavioral and social interventions for these children is accelerating—and so are our understandings of how best to translate and implement these approaches in homes, schools, and communities.”

Earlier this year, the Center for Disease Control reported that 1 in 50 children in the U.S. live with autism, up from 1 in 88 in 2012. These children will incur an average additional cost of $2.3 million for treatment and care over a lifetime, but early diagnosis and effective interventions can reduce that cost by two-thirds.

“Despite isolated reports of interventions helping some children to progress out of the autism spectrum, we’re not yet at a cure,” said Odom. “But the field’s increasing understanding of effective practices, as well as its ability to make use of them, will lead to many more positive outcomes for children and families.”

Across Odom’s career, Gesell remained important to his thinking about child development. In an editorial for the Journal of Early Intervention, Odom considered the pediatrician in light of research emerging from some of the new millennium’s foremost scientists and their followers. He termed Gesell a “developmental geographer” and a pioneer who himself had spawned an influential following of noted researchers in early childhood education and special education.

In addition to receiving the Gesell Prize at the Munich conference, Odom delivered two featured presentations, which included updates on the state of the current science on ASD. Indeed, Odom’s work has found an audience in Germany far more easily than Gesell’s own research originally did, and not merely because of the ease with which information today crosses the globe.

According to the Theodor Hellbrugge Foundation, National Socialism had isolated Germany from international research during a time when interest outside the country in Gesell’s long list of books was at its highest. This, in fact, prompted the German foundation to establish the award in Gesell’s memory.

Clearly, from Odom’s start as a young graduate student at the University of Tennessee to his present place among the international elite of child development researchers, no such barriers have stood between him and the legacy of Arnold Lucius Gesell.