By Joseph D. Bryant
For The Birmingham Times
Inspired by her younger brother who has non-verbal autism and her desire to better communicate with him, Alexis Vance, a Birmingham native has devoted her studies and career to advocate for awareness, communication, and self-expression among people with autism.
Vance, 28, a Birmingham native and a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, recently completed her master’s in behavioral science, graduating with honors from Hunter College in New York City.
It all began with her aspiration to know more about her brother Raymond who changed the course of his sister’s career and inspired Vance to examine the diagnosis and seek ways to help other children, like her brother, live more complete lives.
“Initially, I was just interested in the diagnosis itself, and I started volunteering at his school, and it just spiraled from there,” she said. “Non-vocal people are at risk of 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 will take advantage of him or who will treat him less than human because he can’t speak.”
Vance said there are a lot of misconceptions about autism. “My brother is so interesting because, although he can’t talk, he’s very smart,” she said. “He knows how to manipulate people in the room. He knows if it’s a new person there’s a list of things he can get away with. He has shown that time and time again.”
Statistically, 3.7% of U.S. boys have autism spectrum disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, there is an underrepresented number of African American children and girls who receive autism care therapy, diagnoses, and the necessary resources in order to thrive, Vance said. Her thesis focused on inspiring self-expression among autistic populations by teaching cosmetic application procedures to those living on the spectrum – mostly girls.
“A lot of people who are neurodivergent don’t have a strong concept of self,” Vance explained. “Self-expression is not really clear cut, but it is our duty as providers to always respect the individual. This is something that they are rightfully owed as a human being. At the end of the day, they are still people, and they have desires, and they have preferences.”
Raymond gave her an early primer on this fact, Vance said. In one instance he will watch a classic children’s show, then turn his attention to a Tupac rap video.
“I admire him. What you see is what you get. You don’t have to guess what’s happening with him. There’s no malintent. He’s very honest and very transparent,” Vance said. “That makes him a bright light in my life.”
There are clinical components to the activity of people with neurodivergent conditions, but just as importantly, their actions are examples of people expressing themselves as individuals, Vance stressed.
“In the larger scheme of things, my thesis truly focuses on the importance of self-expression and the need for more efforts to promote self-expression within neurodivergent populations,” she said.
Advocate at Heart
Vance is the daughter of local businessman and registered pharmacist, Delmous Vance, and Deborah Vance Bowie, who once served as Chief of staff to former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.
Bowie gave birth in 2008 to triplets – which includes Raymond as the only boy in the set and the only one diagnosed with autism- while working as chief of staff in former mayor Larry Langford’s office. Raymond was diagnosed with autism shortly before Bowie moved away to Georgia and then to Florida to find more services and supports for him.
Bowie called her daughter’s career choice a no-brainer for a child who excelled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula.
“Alexis was a presidential scholar at Xavier University of Louisiana, majoring in biology premed,” Bowie said. “She’d previously earned top honors in the behavioral science category at the Alabama State Science Fair in middle school, so I wasn’t surprised to see her enter the field.”
“I also know having her little brother diagnosed with ASD at 19 months has had a profound impact on her,” Bowie added.
Delmous Vance expressed similar sentiment about his daughter.
“I wasn’t too surprised because she’s always had a caring heart,” he said. “She was always outgoing and a very courageous child. She was not afraid to go in her own direction.”
Bowie said her daughter was an advocate for her brother since his earliest days, which began with life-threatening challenges.
“He was born with necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly disease of the intestinal tract where the tissue dies slowly and creates lifelong gastrointestinal problems. He almost didn’t make it but once we got him home, he quickly rebounded before we discovered he had all of these speech, motor skills, and social skill impairments,” Bowie said.
“Since then, his whole life has been overcoming one challenge after the next and Alexis has been his champion every step of the way.”
Bowie added the circumstances around Alexis’ birth in 1994 also have 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 go on. She was the center of my mom’s world, too. So, from the beginning, we leaned on her light to get us through some dark years.
“I think that experience has created in her a deep and abiding love for people and inspires her to help people like my son, who need unconditional love and acceptance, to live their best lives,” Bowie added.
Vance, who became a Registered Behavioral Technician before entering graduate school, in September 2022 spoke before the Association for Behavioral Analysis International in Dublin, Ireland. Her presentation was based on a peer’s thesis on gestural behavior.
Vance is currently revising her thesis manuscript with a plan to present at additional conferences this year. Her research included participating in both the U.S. and Australia. The pandemic forced her to retool her work to virtual, but also enabled her to expand her subjects to include a global population.
“It allowed me to remind myself that this is a worldwide problem,” she said.
Vance is generating attention in conference rooms, lecture halls, and even on the runway. In her spare time, the Brooklyn resident is a successful social media brand ambassador.
“It started out as a hobby. I was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of New York. I just hit the ground working. It spiraled into me being able to make money doing it,” she said. “I definitely plan to continue doing it as long as I enjoy it.”
Vance said even modeling has inspired aspects of her research and helps her create avenues that intersect with neurodivergent people.
What’s next for the autism advocate, scholar and model?
“I’m preparing (for my) behavioral analyst certification exams,” she said. “Soon, I’ll be the one implementing my own intervention strategies that I will oversee someone else carry out.”
Updated at 1:20 p.m. on 1/31/2023 to correct the number of U.S. boys who have autism spectrum disorder.