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Diagnosing Autism in Black Children

Shanter Alexander’s work focuses on the resources available for the Black neurodivergent communities and their cultural effectiveness.

by Amber D. Dodd
Shanter Alexander for Howard Magazine Digital 2023

Shanter Alexander is an assistant professor in Howard University's School of Education’s psychology program studying and advocating for resources for Black autistic people and their communities 

For the first time, more Black and Latinx children are being diagnosed with autism at higher rates than their white peers, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study released in March 2023. It’s not because autism is directly linked to ethnicity. New, inclusive screening procedures were adapted by the CDC. Today, 1 in 36 children have been diagnosed with autism.  

Shanter H. Alexander, PhD, assistant professor in the School Psychology program whose research focuses on autism, contextualized what the CDC research determines for her field of study.   

“Our autistic communities of color have finally been heard,” Alexander says. “The research community is starting to listen.”   

Before examining neurodivergence professionally, Alexander grew up in Saint Lucia with a family member who was deaf and had autism. She saw the firsthand experience of her family working with its limited resources. She pursued a career that studied and screened neurodevelopmental  disorders such as autism through an intersectional, cultural lens.   

We want to make sure that the Mecca is a safe place for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders that they feel included. They feel seen, they feel heard.” 

Alexander is cognizant of common issues with mental health in the Black community and the shame and stigma related to getting help for children with disabilities. Racial stereotypes can also affect how neurodivergent children of color are perceived in the medical and educational fields. The stigma of needing care in Black communities also stifles efforts to access support.  

“From an intersectional lens, even the spiritual practices embedded in our culture often dissuade efforts to seek medical attention and seeking community assistance, instead we have faith that we can ‘pray it away’,” Alexander says. “Another thing related to the intersectionality of work with communities of color is the cultural pride we have that prevents us from exposing what our needs are. Our people don’t want to seem like we are not ‘making it,’ so we don’t ask for help. Representation matters. We trust those who look like us and understand our stories. We want to feel safe.”  

1 in 36

children diagnosed with autism in 2020 (CDC)

  • 29.3 Black children per 1,000 children diagnosed with autism (CDC)

This year’s updated research mirrors some of Alexander’s recent work with the University, particularly in the School of Education’s Human Development and Psychoeducational Studies programs. Outside of the University, Alexander presented her work to the White House Office of Public Engagement’s where she expressed the critical need for equitable supports, training, and resources for autistic communities of color to leaders in the disability field. 

She envisions a field of school psychology and research that invests in the training of autistic scholars, trainers, researchers and clinicians from communities of color. The ultimate goal is to create a more neuroinclusive society where people of color with disabilities feel safe.

Alexander is also spearheading The NICER Project (Neurodiversity, Inclusion, and Community Engaged Educational Research) Project through which she collaborates with various autism groups and foundations to conduct research that will contribute to the development of resources and supports that improve quality of life for Autistic Communities of color.  She has also partnered with the Children’s Hospital in DC where she served as a core discipline coordinator in the hospital’s Faculty in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities Fellowship.   

With the rise of children diagnosed with autism, Alexander hopes that children’s “visibility and sense of belonging” is considered at all levels of education, prompting inclusive learning solutions for autistic children.  

Eradicating ableism in the classroom is the ultimate goal.  

“At Howard University, I want the autistic community to turn around and say ‘Hey, Howard is a great school to send your child [to] who has autism,” Alexander says. “Our counseling department offers trauma focused therapy. Our classrooms and technology are suitable. I’m really talking about making ourselves uncomfortable to ensure that our neurodiverse community feels accepted.”  

With the new CDC’s autism prevalence data now made public, Alexander emphasized that recruiting and training more practitioners and experts of color to serve the neurodivergent communities at Howard is a great priority.  

“My hope is that we can provide a place where Black and brown parents can come and fly from all over the country to have a clinician that looks like them evaluate their children,” Alexander says. “We care at Howard University, and we are the Mecca. We want to make sure that the Mecca is a safe place for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders that they feel included. They feel seen, they feel heard. Representation matters. We trust those who look like us and understand our stories. We want to feel safe.”  


This story appears in the Spring/ Summer 2023 issue.
Article ID: 1471

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