In recognition of the IES 20th anniversary and Black History Month, we interviewed Dr. Jamie Pearson, an assistant professor of special education at North Carolina State University. Jamie is developing and refining a community-based parent-training intervention, FACES (Fostering Advocacy, Communication, Empowerment, and Support), designed to strengthen Black parents' capacity to access and use special education services and improve the communication and behavior outcomes for their autistic children.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in studying diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
My early career experiences were as a behavioral interventionist for autistic students in home, school, and community settings. While providing direct support, I noticed that many of the students I supported were white and most came from middle- and upper-class socioeconomic backgrounds. These experiences led me to question whether there were disparities in diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and treatment/service access for children of color, particularly Black autistic children. These early questions were the catalysts for my scholarship.
As a doctoral student, I began exploring Black families’ experiences supporting autistic children. I became very passionate about investigating (a) disparities in the identification of autism and service access for Black autistic students and their families, (b) the implementation and evaluation of culturally responsive family advocacy interventions, and (c) strategies for strengthening partnerships between historically marginalized families and schools. Based on the findings from my early exploratory research, I developed and piloted the FACES intervention.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
When I began this work, I distinctly remember a faculty member asking me why it was important to look at the intersections of autism and race/ethnicity. They genuinely didn’t understand. I was passionate about my work, and even though not everyone understood the implications of these disparities at the time, they learned from my early exploratory work. It is important for underrepresented scholars to know that you have a seat at the table! Your knowledge, experiences, and contributions are needed in education research. We need more scholars of color, disabled scholars, and LGBTQIA+ scholars who reflect the populations with whom we conduct educational research and whose diverse perspectives impact how we engage in and interpret education research. My three pieces of advice in a nutshell would be find your passion, follow your passion, and know that you are deserving of a seat at the table. Pull up a chair if you have to!
Tell us about your current IES project focused on FACES. Do you have any updates or preliminary findings you would like to share about supporting Black children with ASD and their families?
The purpose of my IES Early Career project is to develop and test the promise of FACES when delivered by community-based parent educators. So far, two of my doctoral students and I (all Black women) have been the only people to facilitate FACES. To scale the intervention up, we need to design a training for facilitators to know how to implement FACES, train the facilitators, and then test its promise when delivered by facilitators in community-based settings. We are partnering with two community-based organizations who provide parent advocacy and support to achieve these goals.
During phase 1 of this project, we conducted a content analysis of our community partners’ data to better understand the extent to which Black families raising autistic students were seeking support for their child. These findings indicate that Black families are most often seeking specific therapeutic services (such as speech therapy) for their child, followed by school-related support and behavioral support. We then conducted focus groups with community-based providers to better understand their experiences and needs supporting Black families. Findings from these focus groups indicated that community-based providers are serving multiple roles—feeling as though they serve as therapist, teacher, advocate, and more with some families—with limited resources. These findings, combined with emergent themes around racial responsiveness and racial sensitivity, are helping us tailor the train-the-trainer components of the project. For example, we are building a section into our training about the implications of colorblind ideology and how to address facilitator biases. Facilitators will need to complete this training and demonstrate their understanding of the content before they move forward with facilitating the FACES intervention.
What do you see as the greatest research needs to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
Much of the research around autism disparities has focused on quantifying racial disparities, yet little work has been done to reduce these disparities. Black families raising autistic children need access to parent education and advocacy training to combat the barriers they face in service access and utilization and find spaces where they feel welcome. I strongly believe that community-based parent education sets the foundation for empowering families that have been historically marginalized. We’ve seen FACES families go back to their communities and educate their friends and families about autism, connect them to services, and even create their own support groups. When families have more knowledge about autism and autism services, they feel more empowered. When they feel more empowered, they are better equipped to advocate. This is why it’s critical to engage in this work with historically marginalized families at the community level.
However, families of color still face many systemic barriers, so we still have a lot of work to do with educators and healthcare providers to ensure they are engaging in culturally responsive practices that facilitate effective partnerships with marginalized families. We need both empowered families and culturally responsive providers to effectively address these disparities.
The IES 20th anniversary campaign focuses on the future of IES as well as the most notable IES accomplishments. Follow the campaign on IES social media channels and our website. Join the conversation by using #IESat20 on social media.
This blog was produced by Akilah Nelson, program officer for the National Center for Special Education Research.