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Brian Boyd rethinks autism research

The most recent work by the interim director of FPG Institute

and education professor focuses on Black families’ experiences.

Brian Boyd headshot
For more than 20 years, Brian Boyd has dedicated his career to ensuring high-quality education and outcomes for a most vulnerable population — children and young adults with significant disabilities, who are often subject to exclusion, isolation, and poor postsecondary outcomes.

His research has led to effective classroom and home-based interventions for very young children with autism. For autistic individuals who exhibit repetitive, restrictive and sensory behaviors that interfere with their quality of life, his work has helped them to more fully engage in learning experiences.

Boyd’s more recent scholarship aims to engage and serve an even more vulnerable and marginalized population — autistic children and youth of color and their families. The goal of this work is to make bold inroads to change diagnostic, service provision, and research processes to reduce systemic barriers in the field of special education.

Boyd joined the UNC School of Education as the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education in July 2022 and brings an incredibly unique scholarly expertise and scholarly agenda that holds the potential to alter the field of autism research. Through necessary diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and research that engages community members as key stakeholders, his impact on the field can ultimately improve outcomes for all autistic children and youth.

A field-leading autism researcher

Before joining the School of Education, Boyd served as a professor of applied behavioral science at the University of Kansas, where he also lead the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, a premier research institute known for ground-breaking efforts to improve the care and educational experiences of children over the last half-century.

Prior to Kansas, Boyd spent nearly a decade as a faculty member in the UNC Department of Allied Health Sciences, earning tenure and holding research appointments at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.

His work has resulted in more than 85 refereed journal articles in top journals across disciplinary fields, including The Lancet, the Journal of Child and Adolescent PsychiatryAutism, and the Journal of Early Intervention. He has also published seven book chapters and one book, “Handbook of Early Childhood Special Education.”

Boyd serves as the primary investigator or co-PI on four grants — totaling over $20 million — from the National Institute of Health, one from the Health Resources and Services Administration, and two from the Institute of Educational Sciences. Previously, 15 of his funded research and development grants garnered approximately $30 million, most from federal agencies, including NIH and IES. These grants have enabled Boyd to run large-scale, randomized control trials of interventions in school districts across North Carolina, Florida, California, and Kansas.

Driven by curiosity

Boyd’s entry into the field of autism research was driven by curiosity. For Boyd, that entry was also, to some degree, by chance. As a student in a psychology course at the College of William & Mary in the late 1990s, his textbook had just a single paragraph dedicated to autism.

“We didn’t talk about [autism] the way we do now,” Boyd said. “But there was something about that paragraph … I decided to search online, and what popped up was the Autism Society of North Carolina’s summer camp, Camp Royall.”

Boyd applied and became a camp counselor during Camp Royall’s very first summer, spending 10 weeks working with autistic people of varying ages and abilities levels.

“After that experience, I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he said.

“People with autism are all so different,” he said. “You may go all the way from people who have a co-occurring intellectual disability — so someone with a very low IQ and perhaps are not speaking — to people who have genius-level IQ and are quite verbal, quite social. It makes research challenging. Everyone is so different, and, yet they’re all under this label of autism spectrum disorder.”

That summer experience led to a pre-doctoral internship at UNC-Chapel Hill’s TEACCH Autism Program — which provides core services and unique demonstration programs that meet the clinical, training, and research needs of individuals with autism, their families, and professionals across North Carolina — where he worked with 2-year-olds. At the time, very few 2-year-olds were being diagnosed with autism, Boyd noted.

“Those early experiences with autistic people and their families led me to where I am and still drive my work today,” he said. “I am still trying to answer some of the research questions that I have from those earliest encounters.”

Read the School of Education’s Q&A with Boyd, who talked about where autism research needs to go, where his work is going and how we can better serve people with autism who have intersectional identities.

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