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Forming Strong Cultural Identities in an Intersecting Space of Indigeneity and Autism

As the Secwepemc child of a Sixties Scoop survivor, with generations of grandparents who survived residential school (and an unknown number of relatives who did not), I inherited, like all Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Canada, the legacies of colonization. A key difference in the lives of Indigenous Peoples like me compared to non-Indigenous peoples is that these colonial legacies were never intended to protect the humanity and interest of Indigenous Peoples. They were designed to systematically eradicate and erase our culture and very existence. As if this attack on the human spirit is not enough, I was born with autism and, similarly, immediately into the outgroup of Canadian society at large.

Post by BCcampus Research Fellow Heather Simpson, Justice Institute of British Columbia 

A person with neurodivergence, like Indigeneity, is often viewed as “other”—a lesser, sub-human existence. Again, like Indigenous Peoples, people with autism’s identity and very existence is threatened by the ableist, exclusionary, cis-hetero White male normative dominance that permeates Western society and results in everything from everyday bullying and micro-aggressions, to pervasive systemic and discriminatory policies, to disproportionate levels of mental illness, disease, suicide, and other forms violence, including genocide. Indigenous People with autism are among the most marginalized and victimized in Canadian society. Personally, living life in this intersection of Indigeneity and autism, I know firsthand the level and degree of challenges faced in different arenas, including post-secondary education. As a parent to three neurodivergent Indigenous children, two of whom have autism, I understand that while there are commonalities in the struggles of Indigenous Peoples and people with autism to navigate systems and societies built according to worldviews, values, and cultures different from their own, no single Indigenous person with autism’s story is identical, and there is something to learn from each journey.

Context matters. To understand the experience of an Indigenous person with autism, each story in different settings and environments must be told and included. This impetus paved the way for a BCcampus Research Fellows 2021 project as a platform to address this urgent need. Project Elder Phillip Gladue, Métis-Cree, says we must “create a safer space for Indigenous autistic students to come out of their shell, and through Aboriginal ways of doing, create cultural opportunities so the student can give something to the communities they belong to for their own health and healing” (personal communication, July 19, 2021). 

Titled Forming Strong Cultural Identities in an Intersecting Space of Indigeneity and Autism, our participatory action research project will use digital storytelling to weave together individual and collective narratives that represent storied experiences of Indigenous post-secondary students with autism in rural and remote areas of B.C. We aim to address the gap in self-determined, culturally relevant knowledges in teachings and learning literature, specifically in the areas of Indigenization; decolonization; and equity, diversity, and inclusion. Indigenous adult learners with autism have long been ignored, overlooked, devalued, and not prioritized in post-secondary education. This research is one small but meaningful step toward improving higher learning outcomes for Indigenous learners with autism — and arguably for all students who are marginalized in the public post-secondary system.

This research is supported by the BCcampus Research Fellows Program, which provides B.C. post-secondary educators and students with funding to conduct small-scale research on teaching and learning as well as explore evidence-based teaching practices that focus on student success and learning. 

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The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Mohammad Danish from Pexels