New circle looks at autism through Indigenous lens

A new Indigenous Relations Circle is taking a look at autism and looking for solutions to some barriers people in their communities are facing.

Learning circle includes members who have family with autism, those on the spectrum

Grant Bruno with his wife and son and daughter. Bruno's son (on the left) is on the spectrum. (Steinhauer Photography)

A new Indigenous Relations Circle is taking a look at autism and looking for solutions to some barriers people in their communities are facing.

The circle includes First Nations and Métis people, as well as urban and rural members who either have family members with autism, or are on the spectrum themselves. 

Grant Bruno, a PhD student at the University of Alberta and chair of the circle, said the circle meets monthly to discuss the challenges of the community and opportunities on how to build relationships within the community and with the government. 

"Using our experiences and our knowledge as a combined group, we feel that our circle is in a really good position to make things better for autistic people in Indigenous communities across Alberta," he told CBC's Edmonton AM on Thursday. 

A new Indigenous learning circle is taking a look at autism. The group is looking for solutions to some of the barriers that people in their communities face. Grant Bruno, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, has two children on the spectrum and is the chair of the circle. He and fellow circle member Pearl Yellow Old Woman-Healy met to share some of their experiences.

People with autism can have social deficits and can exhibit restrictive or repetitive behaviours. Sometimes they also have difficulty communicating. 

Grant said he learned an entirely different approach to autism in Indigenous communities compared to non-Indigenous ones. He said in Cree culture they look at acceptance first whereas in the Western model, "You do the therapies first and then you do the acceptance... That to me is totally backwards," he said.

In Cree, the word used to describe autism is pîtoteyihtam — he/she thinks differently.

Pearl Yellow Old Woman-Healy from Siksika Nation with her daughter. (Submitted by Pearl Yellow Old Woman-Healy)

Pearl Yellow Old Woman-Healy from Siksika Nation has a 30-year-old daughter with autism. 

Healy lived on reserve when her daughter was born. When her daughter was 12, she realized she needed extra supports, but funding was limited on reserve so they decided to move to the city.

Healy became a special education teacher and decided to look into autism in Indigenous communities. From her discussions, she learned that some Indigenous communities had a different view of people with autism.

"Quite often, the elders would tell stories of their uniqueness and how they were included in the community," she said. 

Grant said families like Healy's that have to leave their homes searching for aid are also leaving a support structure behind. 

"They're leaving their cultural and kinship supports," he said. "They lose kokom and mosom, or their grandmother and grandfather and it just brings on a whole different list of challenges."

He said the goal of the circle is not only for supports to be available in Indigenous communities to prevent people from leaving, but also to inform western systems of Indigenous practices.

With files from CBC's Ariel Fournier