Autism (Mis)Understood – Black Parents of Sons with Autism Speak Their Truth   

Donovan Davenport, far right, was diagnosed with autism at a young age. He has a big family of supporters and encouragers like his father, Tarrance, Sr., second from right, his mother, Catrice Mathews-Davenport, second from left, his big brother Destin Mathews, far left, and his baby sister, Candice Davenport, front.

Photo provided by Catrice Mathews-Davenport   


* In this two-part series the Michigan Chronicle has in-depth conversations around autism, especially as it relates to the Black community with misdiagnosis, late diagnosis — and how the right diagnosis can make all the difference. This series (featuring parents, families, and executives) will lead up to the September 11 Autism Alliance fundraising event to help make an impact on autism in the community and beyond.     


“Don’t let anybody brush you off.”      

That was the message that Catrice Mathews-Davenport, 49 of Detroit, told herself years earlier when she struggled to find the proper resources for her son, Donovan Davenport, who was diagnosed with autism as a child.   

“During (my) pregnancy I didn’t think of autism,” she told the Michigan Chronicle. “I knew something was different about this pregnancy. He was the easiest pregnancy I ever had — he is my second successful pregnancy during that time.”   

‘Don’t Give Up on Your Child’   

Mathews-Davenport said that her son didn’t move a lot or react to stimulation, especially during the non-stress test in the latter part of her pregnancy.   

“They would get a heartbeat, but nothing stimulated him,” she said, adding that when his heart rate dropped while in the womb, her doctor scheduled a c-section and he was born at nearly 36 weeks.   

“He didn’t cry – an excellent baby,” she said, adding that she and her husband also had a 22-month-old son, Destin, then who did all the neurotypical actions of a developing baby at that age.    

Mathews-Davenport said that when it came time for Donovan to reach developmental milestones, his journey took a different path.   

“I couldn’t get him to participate,” she said. “He would sit there, look like why are we doing this?”   

Mathews-Davenport said that she didn’t think anything of it because after all, all children are different, and he was just “a little behind.”   

One day around three years old when he was in the hospital after coming down with a bad case of asthma, doctors treated him, examined him and recommended follow-up studying after he would only grunt and babble at them.   

“I still didn’t think anything of it,” she said, adding that around the house he would point at things and grunt. “That is his way of letting us know he wanted cereal … (or) if he didn’t like the texture of something.”   

Down the road, when Donovan was officially diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum (she didn’t believe the diagnosis at first), Mathews-Davenport went to multiple doctors for a second, third, and fourth opinion – the last one solidified it for her.    

“I was very offended,” she said before she believed the diagnosis, adding that once it was confirmed he was on the spectrum she got to work. “I was like where do we start?”   

Donovan, who has Aspergers (a high functioning form of autism) spectrum, subsequently had play therapy, attended mainstream schooling, and received speech and occupational therapy, among other things.   

She added when he was in preschool, people didn’t “understand autism at all,” they just lumped all of the differently-learning students together, which was not a one-size-fits-all situation. The mother of three said that she had an “aha” moment, a learning curve, those first couple of years and learned to locked arms with other parents navigating autism.   

“People started to ask me for advice,” she said, adding that she started understanding what could be overwhelming for Donovan and how to help him with sensory overload.  Mathews-Davenport said that when it comes to autism, parents don’t have to think it is the “end of the world.”   

“They just think differently,” she said adding that there is a spectrum and everyone who has autism looks different. The most important thing is to get help as soon as possible. “(There are) so many programs out there that help. Don’t let anybody brush you off.”   

She added that her son is brilliant, especially when working on computers.   

“We’ve watched Donovan mature so much,” she said.   

Donovan told the Michigan Chronicle that he likes computer work.   

“I know how to make programs,” he said, adding that he is figuring out what career path he wants when he grows up.   

“Once he learns something he gets it from that point,” Mathews-Davenport said.   

Kevin’s Sons and Their Journey   

Detroit resident Kevin Tolbert, 47, is the father of 17-year-old boys, Khalil and Kaiden, who are both on the autism spectrum after the boys’ daycare discovered that one of them, Khalil, had autism when he was in preschool.   

“He is probably the more severe form of autism; he was born second,” Tolbert said, adding that his daycare recognized a lot of Khalil’s symptoms early on because he spent a lot of time in the mirror, had repetitive behavior patterns, and more. “I didn’t react well — I vehemently felt they were so wrong.”   

Once he learned that they were right after a diagnosis three years later he discovered that his other son, Kaiden, also had autism, but he was higher on the spectrum.   

Tolbert said because his sons are twins he tried to figure out if it was something genetic that caused them to have autism.   

“I spent a lot of time working on that, then decided how or what happened doesn’t matter,” he said, adding that he made it his mission to get his sons the best varying levels of help, which began in kindergarten.   

Khalil, whom Tolbert describes as very quiet, said that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy was critical in helping him develop communication and life skills—through therapy sessions weren’t covered by insurance initially.   

“We found out about ABA therapy, which was fairly new at the time …wasn’t covered by very many employers, now by state law it is covered.”   

Tolbert said that Khalil is a very different child today, and he appreciates that the ABA therapy (which is now covered) helped him progress.   

“I recommend this to any person with a kid on the autism spectrum,” he said, adding that it’s vital for the Black community to continue to empower themselves when seeking treatment for Black children who have autism.    

From a faith perspective, Tolbert said that at times Black people who go to church rely on their faith alone to help their children, but, “Faith without works is dead,” he adds.   

“Many ministers and pastors …waste precious time,” he said, adding that while it’s important to keep the faith, finding resources along the way is critical, too, before it’s too late.   

On the flip side, nationwide reports reveal that even after a Black child’s parents express their concern to healthcare professionals about their children’s development, it can take an additional three years for a diagnosis. Proper treatment after diagnosis is another waiting game, too, at times. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more white and Hispanic children are diagnosed than Black children.    

Tolbert said that along with proper treatment and medical intervention, he just wants his community and healthcare professionals to step up even more — and handle children (and adults) with autism like you would our own.   

“When you see people on the special needs spectrum a simple ‘hello’ would mean a lot to them,” he said. “They’re usually invisible and people treat them as such, and they become adults and we ignore them. … What you need to do to learn. That is what community is about — stepping up in any way we can to help out.”   

The Autism Alliance of Michigan’s fundraiser, Michigan Shines for Autism Gala, is September 11 and presented by the DTE Foundation. For more information visit   

Contact Staff Writer Sherri Kolade with story ideas at   




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