Inspired by her younger brother, who suffers from nonverbal autism, and her desire to better communicate with him, Alexis Vance has dedicated her studies and career to promoting awareness, communication, and self-expression among people with autism.
Vance, 28, a native of Birmingham and a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, recently graduated with honors from Hunter College in New York City with her Masters in Behavioral Sciences.
It all started with her desire to learn more about her brother Raymond, who changed the course of his sister’s career and inspired Vance to seek ways to help other children lead more fulfilling lives.
“Initially, all I was interested in was the diagnosis itself, and I started volunteering at his school and it just kind of spiraled from there,” she said. “Non-vocal people are subject to so many different types of abuse. I wanted to be a resource for my family to always be able to monitor his progress and also to protect him from people who would take advantage of him or treat him less than human because he can’t speak.”
Vance said there are many misconceptions about autism. “My brother is so interesting because he’s very smart even though he can’t speak,” she said. “He knows how to manipulate people in the room. He knows when it’s a new person there’s a list of things to get away with. He has shown that again and again.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3.7% of boys have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). An underrepresented number of African-American children and girls receive autism care therapy, diagnosis, and resources to thrive, Vance said. Her graduate work focused on inspiring self-expression in autistic people by teaching cosmetic application techniques to those living on the spectrum – mainly girls.
“A lot of people who are neurodivergent don’t have a strong sense of themselves,” Vance said. “Self-expression is not really clear, but it is our duty as providers to always respect the individual. This is something they rightly owe as human beings. At the end of the day, they are still human and they have desires and preferences.”
Raymond gave her an early introduction to that fact, Vance said. In one instance, he watches a classic children’s show and then turns to a Tupac rap video.
“I admire him. What you see is what you get. You don’t have to guess what’s going on with him. There’s no malicious intent. He’s very honest and very transparent,” Vance said in my life.”
There are clinical components to the activity of people with neurodivergent disorders, but just as important, their actions are examples of people expressing themselves as individuals, Vance pointed out.
“Overall, my PhD research really focuses on the importance of self-expression and the need for further efforts to encourage self-expression within neurodivergent populations,” she said.
advocate in heart
Vance is the daughter of businessman and pharmacist Delmous Vance and Deborah Vance Bowie, who was once chief of staff to former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.
Bowie gave birth to triplets in 2008, including Raymond as the only boy on the set and the only one to be diagnosed with autism. Raymond was diagnosed just before Bowie moved to Georgia and then Florida to find more services and support for him.
Bowie called her daughter’s career choice a no-brainer for a child who excelled in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Alexis was a Presidential Scholar at Xavier University of Louisiana, majoring in biology,” said Bowie. “She had previously received top honors in the behavioral sciences category at the Alabama State Science Fair in middle school, so I wasn’t surprised when she entered the field.”
“I also know that her little brother’s diagnosis with ASD at the age of 19 months had a profound impact on her,” Bowie said.
Delmous Vance expressed similar feelings about his daughter.
“I wasn’t too surprised because she always had a caring heart,” he said. “She was always outgoing and a very brave kid. She wasn’t afraid to go her own way.”
Bowie said her daughter had been an advocate for her brother from his earliest days, which began with life-threatening challenges.
“He was born with necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly disease of the intestinal tract in which the tissue slowly dies and causes lifelong gastrointestinal problems. He almost didn’t make it, but when we got him home he made a quick recovery before we realized he had all these speech, motor and social disabilities,” Bowie said.
“Since then his whole life has conquered challenge after challenge and Alexis has been his champion every step of the way.”
Bowie said the circumstances surrounding Alexis’ birth in 1994 shaped her life as a caregiver and advocate.
“Alexis was born three days after my sister was murdered,” Bowie said. “Her death sent me into early labor, so Alexis became the reason I was able to keep going. She was also the center of my mother’s world. So from the start we drew on their light to get us through some dark years.
“I think this experience gave her a deep and enduring love for people and inspired her to help people like my son who need unconditional love and acceptance to live their best life,” Bowie said.
Vance, who became a Registered Behavioral Technician before entering graduate school, spoke at the Association for Behavioral Analysis International in Dublin, Ireland last year. Her presentation was based on a colleague’s work on gesture behavior.
Vance is revising her dissertation manuscript with plans to present it at more conferences this year. Her research spanned the US and Australia. The pandemic forced her to transition her work to virtual, but allowed her to expand her issues to a global population.
“It allowed me to remind myself that this is a global problem,” she said.
Vance turns heads in boardrooms, lecture halls and even on the runway for models. In her spare time, the Brooklyn resident is a successful social media brand ambassador.
“It started as a hobby. I was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of New York. I just got down to work. It led to me being able to make money from it,” she said. “I definitely intend to keep going as long as I enjoy it.”
Vance said the modeling has inspired aspects of her research and helped her find pathways that intersect with neurodivergent people.
What’s next for the autism advocate, scientist and model?
“I’m preparing for[my]behavior analyst certification exams,” she said. “Soon I’ll be the one implementing my own intervention strategies, which I’ll oversee from someone else.”
This story originally appeared in the Birmingham Times.