Kaleb Phelps never expected to become an autism researcher. In fact, until he arrived at the South Carolina Honors College in the fall of 2020, he had no personal experience with autism spectrum disorder, commonly known as ASD.
The opportunity to conduct research in the USC Neurodevelopment Disorders Lab changed that. There, Phelps, a public health major, spent time working with children who had been diagnosed with ASD. This sparked a passion to better understand the condition, particularly within the black community.
“We just didn’t see as many Black participants as I expected,” he says. “And that made me realize, ‘This is something I need to look into.’”
With support from the Honors College and the Office of Undergraduate Research, Phelps identified psychology professor Jessica Bradshaw as someone who could help him learn more about ASD and the diagnostic processes behind it. After just one email, Bradshaw was able to connect Phelps with psychologists and educational experts in the community.
Now, Phelps is set to begin conducting research on the experiences of Black families pursuing ASD diagnoses. He is one of just three students nationwide whose research proposal received funding from a 2023 fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation.
“An avalanche starts small,” he says. “Two years ago, if you would have told me I would be in this position, I would have thought you were crazy.” Yet, here he is, set to begin his research this summer under Bradshaw’s mentorship.
The study will serve as the foundation of his Honors thesis, "Understanding the Diagnostic Experiences of Black Families.”
“Large gaps exist in healthcare for Black autistic children, yet the lived experiences of these families are rarely investigated,” Phelps says, but his research can change that. His study is key in developing solutions that will help eliminate barriers Black children face in receiving an autism diagnosis and support.
Bradshaw says she was “thrilled, but not surprised” to see Phelps receive the Autism Science Foundation grant: “Kaleb is among the most insightful, intelligent and impressive students I have come across at USC. His research ideas are innovative and driven by his genuine intellectual curiosity. His nuanced questions about the intersection of race, income, and education will lead to novel insights for our field and will make a significant impact in reducing health disparities in our community.”
Phelps also hopes that his work reminds the public that there is no single way that people with autism look or act.
“You may be interacting with someone every day who is on the spectrum and you’d never know it because they don’t present the way you assume,” he says. “That’s important to keep in mind.”
Phelps will conclude his study and present his findings in the fall before graduating. He then plans to pursue a dual degree in law and healthcare administration. His ultimate goal is to work in healthcare policy and promotion, where he can continue advocating for proactive, community-based healthcare.
“I want to be able to come out of this project not only looking at solutions that are going to eliminate health disparities for autism,” he says, “but also solutions that can be applied to health disparities as an as an entirety. I want to help create a broader approach to these challenges.”
Phelps’ undergraduate research experience began with support from an Honors College research grant. Honors students interested in pursuing research funding can learn more here. Grants open to all university students are available through the Office of Undergraduate Research.
Undergraduate researchers looking to pursue external research funding, such as the Autism Science Foundation grant, should contact National Fellowships and Scholar Programs.