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Autism in Indian Country

By Healthcare One Comment

AFO Board member and DEI Officer Dr. Crystal Hernandez was recently asked to submit a public comment for the upcoming Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) in regard to Autism in Indian Country. It is imperative to have services and supports that are culturally relevant for our various Tribal Nations throughout the United States, including the many Tribes in Oklahoma. With this public comment, there are hopes of true inclusion in decisions, funding, conversations, and action.

My name is Dr. Crystal Hernandez, I am an autism mother and ally, Cherokee and Latina. I serve as a Tribal mentor parent, serving on support groups and panels, working with local and national organizations on Tribal inclusion projects and research. I see and hear the stories of grandparents and parents, communities, and individuals struggling to find suitable service and varied treatment for their Autistic loved ones. I see continued disparities in access to quality care within communities, underrepresentation, and cultural exclusion. We must do better.
It is a pivotal moment in our world, where Tribal Nations are not just being looked at, but rather are starting to be seen and included. But there is still much work to be done. Autism in Indian Country is overwhelmingly underrepresented in national and state data, due to non-inclusive methods of measurement and often distrust of the measuring systems.
We must focus on improving culturally relevant diagnostic tools and screening instruments and train in meaningful ways, those working within the field on cultural humility and responsiveness. There needs to be a focus on embedding appropriate culturally relevant screening practices in a variety of conventional and unconventional settings, such as health clinics, daycares, community centers, nutrition programs, head starts, and behavioral health care settings. A focus on community and extended family compositions in system build and design is desperately needed. We must change the narrative within communities and learn from those walking the journey. Representation matters in all the places where decisions are made, not just in theory, but in continued practice.
There is a great need to improve access to care in community settings, meeting the person where they are, removing barriers to treatment and support. We must look beyond gap analysis and instead focus on actionable items for a continued system overhaul. We need to allow culturally-rooted care to be viewed with the same fidelity and reimbursements that other mainstream treatments are. Giving honor to language, customs, beliefs, values, and practices is the only way forward.
The vast array of Tribal Nations throughout the United States is not here to be served, but rather is here to be part of building meaningful systems of service.
Thank you,
Crystal Hernandez, Psy.D., MBA

Learn more about the IACC at:


Suicide Prevention in the Autism Community

By Healthcare, Mental Health No Comments

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the urgency for autism inclusion is needed when discussing suicide prevention. Several studies have highlighted the disproportionate rates of suicide attempts and death by suicide in autistic adults and youth worldwide. Autism occurs in 1 in 54 children and 1 in 45 adults in America. This complex disorder is often coupled with various co-morbid medical and psychological conditions. Risk factors outlined in many studies include: camouflaging/masking Autistic traits in an attempt to be accepted and adhere to societal norms; co-morbid diagnoses (depression, anxiety, psychosis); barriers for accessing traditional mental health services, and lack of social support systems.

In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month, and it seems appropriate to take this time to share how suicide impacts the autistic community.

  • The suicide and suicide-attempt rate among autistic individuals is three times that of neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals. Some research demonstrates a rate that may be as high as nine times that of neurotypicals.
  • A 2014 study from the United Kingdom (UK) found that approximately 66% of respondents who held an Asperger’s diagnosis reported having had suicidal thoughts, and 35% reported having attempted suicide or having suicidal plans.
  • In the UK, Autistic people have an average life expectancy of 16 years lower than the national average. Suicide is a primary driver of this number among those on the spectrum without an intellectual disability.

Tom Taylor, an Autistic Self-Advocate and AFO Board member from Norman, Oklahoma, shared some personal insights to help shine a light on the need for inclusion in general suicide prevention efforts.

“As the autistic father of an autistic daughter, I look at my child, and I think about suicide attempts and deaths of Autistics. I also look at the differences between the autistic traits of my daughter and my own. It has been my experience that autistic people without intellectual disabilities tend to come in three primary categories. The first are those autistic people who do quite well in social situations and enjoy the company of others – these are autistic people who have cobbled together enough social skills to fake it in a neurotypical world. The second are those who don’t fit in with society and are either oblivious to this fact or simply don’t care to interact with others; this is the type my daughter is. I worry that she’ll someday care, but at this point, humans don’t interest her. The third type is those who want to interact with others and tend to do so poorly; this is me. I can fake social skills temporarily, but I spend a lot of mental energy worrying that I have inadvertently offended someone.

I have been in social situations with other autistic people where the conversation moved to talk about suicide, and the stories told were beyond troublesome. They spoke of their suicide attempts or their suicidal thoughts – and every one of us had a harrowing tale to tell about it.

The segment of society that encompasses socially inept people wanting to socialize is a group of people that also tend to have diagnoses dealing with depression. Going through life hoping to connect with people, find everlasting love, have children, and land a meaningful job are too often unfulfilled desires; our population often lacks the skills needed to obtain or keep these things in life others take for granted. Unfulfilled desires cause suffering, and suffering leads to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

To combat suicide in the autistic community, two initial steps are needed. The first is a conscious effort to include autistic people in our society. The second is autistic people need to monitor their feelings and reach out for help before their loneliness and depression consume them.”

We must continue to do better in building systems that are inclusive of diversity to reach all individuals needing support. Research continues to demonstrate a substantial need to engage autistic individuals in traditional and nontraditional mental health and social supports to enhance their quality of life and truly meet them where they are. There must be a continued effort beyond Suicide Prevention Awareness Month to address the preventative measures, policies, resources, and treatment in an inclusive way. There is a need to build additional protective factors for Autistics in all suicide prevention efforts.

This is the start of a much-needed conversation, and it is the hope that the Autism community continues to be included in all suicide prevention conversations moving forward. Every life is precious and worthy of love, health, compassion, and longevity.

Written by Dr. Crystal Hernandez, Board member and DEI Officer for AFO and Executive Director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center

Autism Day at the Oklahoma State Capitol to be Held April 6th , 2021

By News One Comment

The 5th Annual Autism Advocacy Day at the Oklahoma State Capitol is set for April 6th from 9 AM to Noon. “Many Pieces, One Voice”, a virtual celebration and autism educational experience, is available to all who want to learn about autism policy and advocacy opportunities. A panel discussion with state lawmakers about the issues that matter most to individuals with autism and their families is slated. The panel includes Senator Carri Hicks, Senator Julia Kirt, Representative Jacob Rosecrants, Representative Randy Randleman, and Representative Collin Walke.

Other agenda items include the reading of proclamations, local and national legislation updates, and information on the state of autism early identification and intervention, transition from high school to post-secondary education and employment, and adulthood in Oklahoma.

April is World Autism Month and highlights the expansive and ever-growing effort to promote autism acceptance, inclusion, and self-determination for all, assuring that each person with autism is provided the opportunity to achieve the best possible quality of life.

This event is hosted by the Autism Foundation of Oklahoma,, Oklahoma Autism Center, Oklahoma Autism Network, Oklahoma Family Network, Arc of Oklahoma, Autistic Adults of Oklahoma, and Pervasive Parenting Center. Several state agencies, nonprofits, and service providers will share information, engage families, and educate lawmakers on the needs of Oklahoma’s autism community. Participants can register for virtual access at

Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self regulation. According to the CDC, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children and 1 in 45 adults across all racial, ethic, and socioeconomic groups.

Statewide Autism Nonprofit Expands Mission, Looks to Future

By News, Press Release No Comments

The Autism Foundation of Oklahoma (AFO), formerly known as the Oklahoma Autism Center Foundation, has announced updates to their organization’s name and mission statement to reflect their commitment to serve Oklahomans with autism across the lifespan.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. In 2020, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with the disorder.

Since 2011, the Autism Foundation of Oklahoma (AFO) has aimed to improve the quality of life for children with autism and their families through program support for the Oklahoma Autism Center (OAC), a program of the Child Study Center at the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center. While this commitment remains unchanged, according to Executive Director Emily Scott, AFO has continued to grow concerned over a reported lack of opportunity and services for children with ASD as they transition from early-intervention and school-based services to adulthood.

“After a decade of supporting the OAC’s critically important early- identification and intervention programs, we couldn’t help but notice the number of families who would call back years later in a desperate search for services and support for their now a teen or adult. High rates of unemployment, low participation in education beyond high school, and a lack of community living options for adults with ASD are major issues for this community nationally and here at home. Oklahoma’s rural families can especially attest to this.”

To maximize their impact, AFO spent the last half of 2019 engaging stakeholders statewide to develop a 10-year strategic plan. From a series of listening sessions, professional interviews and a statewide survey, the organization began implementing their plan in 2020 with a new mission statement: to support the Oklahoma Autism Center and other initiatives that improve the quality of life for Oklahomans with autism and their families.

“As Oklahomans with autism make plans for a career, family, and future, they often encounter artificial barriers on the path to self-sufficiency,” said AFO Board Chair Ed Long. “We are committed to working with partners across the state to remove these barriers and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to live their best life. Whether we are talking about post-secondary education, competitive employment, or public safety, a simple lack of awareness and understanding may have tremendously negative consequences for so many of our neighbors for whom there are no real limitations.”

About Autism Foundation of Oklahoma

The Autism Foundation of Oklahoma is a non-profit organization, qualified under Section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code and organized to support the Oklahoma Autism Center and other initiatives that improve the quality of life for Oklahomans with autism and their families. AFO’s programs provide education, advocacy, professional development, technical assistance, and family support for Oklahoma’s autism community and their families.

Media Contact

Emily Scott
Executive Director


OACF Receives Grant from The Masonic Charity Foundation of Oklahoma

By News 6 Comments

The Masonic Charity Foundation of Oklahoma has generously granted $25,000 to the Oklahoma Autism Center Foundation (OACF). This gift will help our organization to provide outreach, education, and resource connections to children and families living in rural Oklahoma.  OACF’s mission is to improve the quality of life for Oklahomans with autism spectrum disorder and their families through advocacy, awareness, and support for the Oklahoma Autism Center. 

“We are incredibly grateful to the Masonic Charitable Foundation of Oklahoma for their recognition of our work and support of our mission,” said Emily Scott, Executive Director of OACF. “Their gift will allow children and families to gain access to critical information on the importance of early screenings, early intervention, and connecting with knowledgeable service providers in their local communities.” 

“The assistance and support provided to families, healthcare providers, and educators by the Oklahoma Autism Center is inspiring,” said John Logan, Executive Director of the Masonic Charity Foundation. “We believe that there is a need in our community for such incredible programming and that all children should receive the supports they need to reach their fullest potential.”

Established in 2011 to provide funding for the Oklahoma Autism Center (OAC), the Oklahoma Autism Center Foundation has quickly grown to provide increased support for the OAC’s three main programs, Early Access, Early Foundations, and the MESA Project. The Oklahoma Autism Center provides an inclusive pre-school replication model, autism screenings, student internships, and professional development training for public school educators. In 2019, the Foundation completed a ten-year strategic plan for increasing the OAC and OACF’s outreach statewide to meet the growing demand for autism services for both children and adults. For more information about this plan or the Masonic Charity Foundation of Oklahoma, visit or

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