On Friday, June 9, Brian Boyd, Ph.D., William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education in the UNC School of Education and interim director of the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, hosted the first in-person meeting of the Black Empowerment in Autism Network, which met in Peabody Hall on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

The first-of-its-kind group of Black scholars was developed to make autism research more inclusive and examine the ways that autism impacts Black children and their families. The network aims to provide opportunities for Black autism researchers and experts to connect, share their experiences and knowledge, and discuss ways to improve understanding and support for Black autistic individuals.

“We want to represent the broad range of research that we see in autism and mentor the next generation of researchers,” said Boyd, whose research, over more than 20 years, has led to effective classroom and home-based interventions for very young autistic children. “Wwant the group to represent a continuum of autism research with the goal of thinking about different audiences and ways to convey who we are, what we do, and what we want to accomplish.” 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black researchers make up approximately 7% of full-time faculty members at postsecondary institutions. Of those 7%, Black faculty research specializations are varied. As a field historically led by White scholars, autism research has had a scarcity of Black researchers and collected data that appropriately represents Black autistic populations — and the network is working toward increasing support and representation for both groups. 

During the meeting, more than 20 researchers, educators, medical professionals, psychologists, speech pathologists, and social workers convened to discuss strategies to bridge the gaps in autism research and ways to enhance communication tactics between practitioners and clients, which could result in more equitable and effective outcomes for Black autistic populations. In-person attendees work at institutions and organizations across the U.S., including North Carolina Central University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Penn State University, and more. Additional researchers from across the U.S. and one from Australia also joined the meeting via Zoom.

The day began with a presentation, “The State of Autism Research for Black Folks,” led by several attendees that explored a number of facets related to autism research, including the prevalence of autism in Black populations and the shortcomings of related data, diagnosis and its timing for Black children, access to services and outcomes of those services, diversity of autism researchers and research participants, and more.

After discussions and writing exercises, the day concluded with reflections on the proceedings and next steps for the Black Empowerment in Autism Network. 

Jamie Pearson (’09 B.A.), Ph.D.

For Jamie Pearson (’09 B.A.), Ph.D., an associate professor of special education and educational equity at North Carolina State University and an integral member in the network’s development and planning, this new group signifies a platform for networking and collaboration on projects related to autism in the Black community and a safe space for Black researchers to engage in conversations that reinforce a sense of belonging.  

“I am so grateful for this space to share research, perspectives, and ideas related to supporting Black autistic children, youth, and families,” Pearson said of the meeting. “This is one of the few places where I can be my most authentic self as a Black academic.” 

Pearson’s sentiment was echoed by many of the attendees. Several said they were “inspired” to be at the forefront of rethinking autism research and how it can be more inclusive at every level.

“The group is about mentorship and growing the representation of Black autism researchers,” Boyd said. “We hope to create a space for Black researchers to craft a research agenda that centers the Black experience.” 

“The meeting was academically and culturally fulfilling,” Boyd said. “The day allowed us to make space to have authentic and much-needed conversations about crafting a research agenda that centers the Black experience in autism. The group reflected on the current state of research and where the field needs to go, but we also took time to celebrate being able to be together.” 

Meet some of the meeting’s attendees and hear about their insights on the Black Empowerment in Autism Network

Nigel Pierce  

Nigel Pierce, Ph.D.

For Nigel Pierce, Ph.D., an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, his experience within autism research is grounded in his teaching as a special educator. Pierce, who played an integral role in the development of the Black Empowerment in Autism Network and the meeting’s planning committee, has mentored a variety of future special education educators that have gone on to develop expertise within varying areas of research.

With one of the network’s primary focuses including mentorship and community outreach, Pierce hopes the June 9 meeting helps to create a space for early-career researchers of color to feel supported and thrive in their work through connections with other Black scholars across multiple disciplines. 

“There are still not enough researchers of color across the many fields that work with young children with autism spectrum disorder,” Pierce said. “Having a specific agenda that focuses on Black and Brown scholars will hopefully support new researchers and faculty as they navigate higher education and will help to increase qualified and productive researchers for the future.” 

“The convening of this group of scholars is important because there is a need for a centered effort in examining the many ways that autism impacts Black children and their families,” Pierce said.

Oluwatobi “Tobi” Abubakare