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Calls to Action

Partnering with Black Churches to Raise Autism Awareness

Posted by Amy Daniels, PhD, Autism Speaks assistant director for public health research

Last Thursday, I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to help launch Autism Speaks’ new partnership with the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI). In this, its pilot phase, our campaign is bringing Autism Speaks Early Access to Care initiative to 150 Atlanta-area churches. The goal: to reduce the average age of autism diagnosis and increase access to quality early intervention in African American communities.

Studies suggest that African American children tend to be diagnosed later than Caucasian children. Many of their families also face significant barriers in accessing early intervention services, especially high-quality, family-centered care. It’s our goal to close this gap.

We’re partnering with black churches because they play such a huge role in educating parishioners. And NBCI represents over 30,000 churches across the United States. Through its Emergency Health Declaration, it shares practical information on health issues affecting the African American community.

Together with Reverend Anthony Evans, NBCI’s president, we visited more than a half dozen Atlanta-area churches on Thursday. We shared Autism Speaks materials that help families recognize early signs and get the help their children need.

At Friendship Baptist Church, I sat down with church secretary Helena Harper to show her our materials. We all know that secretaries run the world. A church secretary has to be the best distribution hub ever! We have so many moms with young children, so many young families who need this, she told me.

At downtown Atlanta’s United Methodist Baptist Church, a daycare teacher welcomed us into her classroom. As soon as I said the word “autism,” she began telling me about “Ms. Davis,” a parishioner who’d organized an awareness event at the church for World Autism Awareness month in April. I slipped her my card and asked her to let Ms. Davis know about our press conference the next day. We’d love to see her there.  

Well, word spreads fast in this community. The next day, I was setting up a table of materials for our press conference at the 142-year-old Wheat Street Baptist Church, just doors from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached and worshipped. In walked a grandfather saying he’d heard there were materials on autism being distributed. His grandson had just been diagnosed, and he was on his way to visit. He left well stocked.

I was also happy to see “Ms. Davis” – Tarvia Davis, bedecked in blue from her eye shadow and hair band to her Autism Speaks Walk T-shirt and blue sneakers. Tarvia is a proud auntie to Jade-Jabria, who has autism. She also brought along her grandmother – Jade’s great-grandma. Both had recently participated in their first Walk for Autism Speaks.

I’ll admit I was nervous, this being my first press conference for Autism Speaks. Reverend Evans warmly introduced me – all of Autism Speaks, really – as “his new partner.” We talked about the central role that churches play in the African American community and the need to close the ethnic gap in early diagnosis and access to high-quality early intervention. We’re so excited about our new partnership with the NBCI. We recognize that a “one size fits all” approach to autism awareness is not the way to close the gap in early diagnosis and intervention in underserved communities.

I want to thank the NBCI, the churches we visited and all the wonderful parents, grandparents and children we met in Atlanta. Thanks, too, to the entire Autism Speaks community for supporting this important work - with special thanks to Ann Gibbons for connecting us with NBCI.

You can read more about our partnership with the National Black Church Initiative here.