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Exploring Autism in Black Youth: Q&A With Diversity Fellow, Ashlee Yates Flanagan, PhD

Published on December 4, 2023 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 2 months 4 weeks ago
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Diversity Fellow Ashlee Yates Flanagan, PhD

Ashlee Yates Flanagan, PhD, is a CHOP Diversity Fellow.

Editor's Note: Diversity and inclusion are critical drivers to our breakthroughs at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. Fostering a community of scientists from unique backgrounds and academic experiences enables collaboration to meet challenging pediatric problems from a variety of perspectives. In a Q&A series in the coming months, we're featuring four new scholars in the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity program at CHOP.

Applications for the next group of Diversity Fellows are due Jan. 30, 2024! Visit the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity page for complete eligibility requirements and application procedures. Submit your application via REDCap.

As a key part of CHOP's commitment to diversity, this fellowship funds talented researchers and educators from different backgrounds, races, ethnic groups, and other diverse populations. Join us to meet these fellows, learn more about their research interests, what diversity in science means to them, and how they enjoy spending their time outside of work. Our third featured Diversity Fellow is Ashlee Yates Flanagan, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Autism Research.

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?

I am a proud Memphian. I attended undergraduate school at Dillard University in New Orleans, a historically Black university. I spent most of my young adult years learning and working in Manhattan, where I was formally introduced to the field of psychology. I earned my master's in counseling from New York University and earned my doctorate in school psychology from Tulane University. I completed an APA-accredited internship with the University of Tennessee Psychology Consortium, where I also trained in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities program.

I am now a second-year postdoctoral fellow at CHOP's Center for Autism Research. My mentors are Whitney Guthrie, PhD, Casey Zampella, PhD, and Laura Soskey Cubit, PhD. As a fellow in the Center for Autism Research, I serve primarily in two distinct roles: clinician and researcher. I am passionate about the inclusion of Black perspectives and experiences in the field of autism research and have more than a decade of experience using qualitative methods to examine the narratives of Black caregivers and Black youth.

I learned of the diversity fellowship during my first year at the Center for Autism Research. Given the fellowship's investment in supporting research and researchers committed to diversity science, I was compelled to apply for the fellowship to raise awareness around the work being done to elevate Black perspectives and experiences in the field of autism research, access resources at CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania, and to learn from other diverse investigators.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

Incorporating diversity into research and science as a basic concept takes into consideration the broad definition of diversity and the diverse richness of humanity and our environment. Diversity in research means having more scholars of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, diverse abilities, neurodiverse profiles, and intersecting identities propelled to larger platforms, where they are consistently considered, funded, credited, cited, and sought after as thought leaders and partners in developing research.

What are some research projects that you're excited about?

In addition to conducting autism-specific diagnostic assessments, I am a co-investigator on "Early Connections," a study led by Drs. Guthrie and Zampella, which uses novel techniques to identify infants with a higher likelihood of being on the autism spectrum. My project (and our secondary aim) is to comprehensively design and implement culturally responsive techniques to strengthen the ecological validity of the design and its findings. I am excited to begin the "Early Connections" project in primary care settings.

As a researcher, I am eager to learn how we can improve early autism screening in everyday context, such as in primary care settings. As a child psychologist who adores working with young children, I am excited to begin interacting with families and offering much needed quality driven autism evaluations to young families.

Another project I am excited about is a collaboration between me and two other Black female autism researchers, D'Jaris Coles-White, PhD, and Tobi Abubakare, who I met through the Black Empowerment in Autism (BEAM) research network. This project, which is in its early concept phase, will explore identity development and the development (and use) of practices, such as masking (i.e., making effort to hide or control natural autistic behaviors) and code-switching (i.e., changing how one acts, speaks, or looks to fit into a more dominant culture) in Black autistic youth. This is an under-explored area of research, and I am excited to begin to elevate these stories so we can better understand the experiences of Black autistic children and adolescents. This will allow us to provide them with better supports.

What inspired you to choose your research focus, and what do you aim to achieve with your research?

During my graduate training at New York University, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Diane Hughes, PhD, a renowned developmental psychologist known for her work on racial and ethnic socialization processes and parent-child communications. Dr. Hughes' work is largely derived from voice (e.g., one-on-one interviews) and qualitative analyses. I have fond memories of sitting in the lab effortlessly listening to audio recordings and reading transcripts of youth's stories about what their parents taught them about race. I was inspired by their stories and realized I wanted my research to be rooted in storytelling, a long-standing tradition in Black culture.

Today, I use voice to explore the developmental experiences and perspectives of Black youth and families. Broadly, my research focuses on autism, Black identity development, and Black mothering. I bring my foci to life by utilizing and developing culturally sensitive research methods, exploring Black mothering systemic experiences, and implementing Black feminist approaches to understand the role of community policing on psychological development.

My research aims to offer culturally sensitive and transparent research frameworks that others can replicate and build upon, to partner with the individuals my research aims to serve (e.g., autistic individuals, Black mothers, etc.), and to share Black stories and experiences through sound science.

What do you do for fun when you're not working?

I enjoy playing tennis and exploring different Philadelphia neighborhoods with my family.