New autism research at Brandon University will explore Indigenous approaches

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A new research study at Brandon University will explore Indigenous approaches to autism in education. Dr. Patty Douglas, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, is the academic lead on the project, working in partnership with Leah LaPlante, Vice President of the Manitoba Métis Federation Southwest, and with Gail Cullen, Executive Director of the Brandon Friendship Centre. The research will bring Indigenous autistic people and those who love and care about them together as part of an upcoming video-based collaboration.

“We need to better understand Indigenous approaches to autism and how these approaches can improve school outcomes, well-being and belonging for Indigenous students, families and communities,” Douglas said.

Following Douglas’ earlier research and digital storytelling work on autism, LaPlante suggested a need for a similar initiative in southern Manitoba because supports for Métis families with autistic members are limited.

“Opening up about lived experiences that have been hard to deal with and telling your story with the help of Elders is an important part of this study. We are hoping this study will give us the documentation we need to improve autism supports and add a cultural perspective. It is crucial that the well-being of Indigenous people is woven into education and health care systems going forward,” LaPlante said.

Interviews with Indigenous people with autism and family and other kin, teachers, community leaders and supporters are currently being held ahead of an online digital storytelling workshop to begin March 12, 2022. The workshop will bring together these groups to support participants to create their own videos telling their stories—with the school system, life experiences, strengths and struggles.

Overall, the project will be guided by the teachings and presence of Elders, knowledge-keepers and Indigenous storytellers and artists, and the team from Douglas’ Re•Storying Autism in Education project.

“Interviews and videos from the project will serve as important sites of knowledge and a roadmap for change honouring Indigenous worldviews of difference,” she said.

Douglas added that Indigenous perspectives that understand children, including autistic children, as unique and as gifts, are largely absent from mainstream understandings of autism.

“As well as being crucial to the flourishing of autistic youth, these perspectives expand knowledge and enlarge understandings of autism more generally by centring the perspectives of Indigenous autistic people, family and community leaders.”

This video project is part of a larger focus on decolonizing autism for the Re•Storying Autism project. Last May, Māori family members whose youth are takiwātanga (a word that translates to ‘living in their/our own space and time’ and is used to describe people who have autism), along with other international participants, created digital videos reflecting their own experiences.

“Māori have been subjected to oppression and stereotypical assumptions for a very long time. Similarly, the autistic community experiences the same stigma due to lack of awareness, education and understanding. Māori diagnosed with Autism spectrum are particularly disadvantaged due to the dearth of research and literature that reports on the Māori perspective of Autism spectrum. The Re•Storying Autism project allowed Māori to tell their story in their own unique way,” said Dorothy Taare Smith, one of the facilitators of the Aotearoa workshop.

Although the ways in which history unfolded differ in each country, Aotearoa and Turtle Island (New Zealand and Canada), the impact that colonialism has had on Indigenous people with autism in both countries has parallels. Indigenous students are more likely to be labeled with behaviour disorders, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or schizophrenia rather than autism, and are more often streamed into special education classrooms or subjected to school discipline and exclusion rather than offered cultural support in the classroom.

“We are looking to see if we will find similar results in Southern Manitoba, and to expand educational practice to include cultural understandings of difference going forward,” Douglas said.


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