February 8, 2024

Building strengths through culture

A WCHRI trainee is redefining autism from a nehiyaw lens

By Luis Fernando Rubio Atonal*

Grant Bruno, a PhD student in the Department of Pediatrics, is studying autism within First Nations communities in Alberta. 

Can you tell us about your research?

Tansi, Grant Bruno, nitsihkasôn Maskwacîs ohci niya. My name is Grant Bruno, and I’m a registered member of Samson Cree Nation one of the reserves that makes up Maskwacîs, Alberta. I am a PhD candidate in Medical Sciences in the Department of Pediatrics. My PhD research is community-led and is in full partnership with Maskwacîs, which is a large First Nations community of about 18,000 reserve members located an hour south of Edmonton. I’m always grateful to be able to do the work that I do to give back to the community, to be rooted in culture and language and to work with Elders and families.

My research is on autism in First Nations communities, specifically Maskwacîs, but I also have another research partnership with the Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario. I do this research because – I have four children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. So, my research is very close to my heart, and that’s exactly where it needs to be.

What drew you into this field of research?

My original research was actually around maternal health in Maskwacîs, and I learned that if you have healthy pregnancies, you’re going to have a healthy community. I began thinking of how we could make sure that these women feel supported. As a father, I felt that it was really important for us to recognize our roles within a pregnancy, and then my research shifted when my sons were diagnosed with autism and I entered the PhD program.

What are the main challenges when working with a multicultural team?

Unfortunately, all the challenges I see in the community are rooted in colonialism. There’s the loss of culture and language, and there’s the Indian Act, which legislated residential schools and restricted economic opportunities. All of these different factors go into children’s well-being and how they’re being supported. When I speak with families, it’s never from a place of judgment, or me trying to fix them; I just try to listen and learn from them. I think the parents really appreciate that, because nobody’s ever sat down with them and talked with them about their experiences of raising autistic children on a reserve, so something as simple as sitting down and listening to them is enough.

In Canada, if you live on reserve, you’re considered federal jurisdiction. Whereas if you want disability support, you have to go to the province. To get better autism services, families end up leaving their family supports, their cultural supports, and their community. I want to be able to develop programming, as well as services that bring those two together, where they can stay in the community and access speech-language pathology or occupational therapy, and not have to worry about the judgment and be fully immersed in their own culture.

How did you navigate perspectives/opinions (medical or otherwise) that were different from yours/Indigenous communities generally?

What I’ve learned in the community is that we view autism differently. The medical model says autism is a deficit – something that could be cured and treated. You can imagine if you’re autistic and hearing these things, that there’s something inherently wrong with you. Whereas in Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) culture, we view autistic children as having special gifts. It’s up to the education system, the health-care system, and the parents and all these different supports around them to be able to fully embrace and celebrate those gifts. The unfortunate thing in my community is that, again, through colonialism, a lot of these teachings have been lost, and now it’s up to me, and my research to bring those teachings and then share those teachings back to the community so that we can all start to celebrate our children.

What I’m learning is that this isn’t just a Nehiyaw phenomenon. I had a conversation with a Blackfoot elder in southern Alberta, and they said a very similar thing. As did those in the Six Nations, the Haudenosaunee tribe, and a Māori researcher from New Zealand I spoke with. It is embedded within our worldview that children are gifts from the Creator and that a child who might be neurodivergent, whether it’s autism or ADHD, needs to be celebrated and embraced.

What are the main takeaways from working in a multicultural team?

We need Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike to solve these problems. When I think about my supervisory relationships with Lonnie [Zwaigenbaum], and David [Nicholas], that’s exactly what it is – they support me and let me lead as the community expert. The second thing is that our communities, despite all the challenges, are still able to provide support to the families and the kids. Our culture, the way we connect, our support systems and our language are good predictors of good health in our communities.

What kind of changes have you seen at the community level as a result of your research?

In my community, we started a community conversation on autism. This has normalized getting a diagnosis and changed perspectives that autism is not this big, bad, scary thing. We have a partnership with Alberta Health Services, which has brought an assessment clinic to the community. Our families were struggling with getting to a clinic in Edmonton or Camrose, so now we’re able to start to bring those services back to the community.

Another example of this is a sensory teepee that we set up at the Samson Cree Nation pow-wow celebration. It is a huge weekend celebration for our community and for a lot of our families, they can’t attend because it can be overwhelming. We created a space for the children and the families so that if they do start to get overwhelmed, they can come to the teepee, play with sensory items and decompress.

Have you applied this type of approach to current Western health-care standards? 

As Nehiyaw people, we’re relational. We want to build relationships and connect with people. I think that’s a fundamental thing missing from the health-care setting. One thing I try to teach people who work in health-care is to always look for opportunities to build even just little relationships. It could be only seeing this person for 10 minutes and then they’re gone from your life forever, but within those 10 minutes, are there opportunities for you to be able to connect with them, and make the visit just a little bit better for them?

How would you describe your overall experience with graduate school?

My overall experience with graduate school has been absolutely amazing. I have an amazing support system around me: my wife – without her, I can’t do this work, – my supervisors, and then all the elders that I’ve been able to work with and the community members and the families. I’ve been able to create all these amazing relationships and they all support each other.

Grant Bruno is supervised by Lonnie Zwaigenbaum. His research is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

*Luis Fernando Rubio Atonal is a member of WCHRI’s Trainee Advisory Committee (TAC). Additional members from TAC who contributed to this story include editors Marina Giovannoni and Kaya Persad, with videography and photography by Robert Mcweeny.