The I Am Movement Develops “Culturally Safe” Educational Resources for Indigenous Children Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder

When Tanika Davis’ son was diagnosed with autism at just two years old, mother Worimi was confronted with the stigma surrounding the developmental disability, but also surprised at Slade’s lack of regard for Indigenous culture.

“It was a bit of a shock,” Ms Davis said.

Her young family attended countless health appointments and consultations, but found that medical professionals lacked the knowledge to appropriately treat and support Aboriginal families.

“We thought everything could be readily available to us as a family…but sadly it wasn’t,” she said.

Ms. Davis said she needs to educate professionals, including speech pathologists and occupational therapists, about culturally appropriate resources such as Indigenous books and activities.

“Too often, as an Indigenous family, we had to somehow educate health services and allied health professionals about cultural safety and our son’s world,” she said.

Ms. Davis and her husband Adrian found that medical professionals did not know how to treat Aboriginal families with autism.(Provided: Tanika Davis)

Ms. Davis and her husband Adrian have taken it upon themselves to gather information and reach out to other Aboriginal families struggling with autism.

“There was a lot of digging and searching the internet and reaching out to other families in our situation to find out what they found,” she said.

Three flash cards feature the letters of the alphabet A, B and C as well as Aboriginal artwork.
Aboriginal-designed flashcards to help children learn numbers, the alphabet and feelings.(Provided: The I Am, Movement)

“More often than not, they couldn’t find anything that was culturally safe.”

It was then that Ms. Davis decided to launch The I Am, Movement.

The organization provides culturally appropriate educational resources, including flashcards featuring Indigenous artwork.

“As parents, we lean into this strengths-based approach. We see so many deficit models in this disability space around what they can’t do and why can’t they do it,” said she declared.

“For us, it’s tossing the coin and saying, ‘Our son can do it’.”

Need for “safe spaces”

During their journey, the Davis family began to notice an increased need for disability-inclusive facilities at larger community events, which could be difficult for children with autism to manage.

“The concept of disability in our community is something that is not talked about enough,” she said.

To meet this growing need, Ms Davis decided to launch her latest project The I Am, Space at one of the biggest events on the Aboriginal calendar, the Koori Knockout, also known as the NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, which attracts thousands of players and spectators from across the state.

A group of young rugby players gathered in an open field
The 2022 Koori Knockout will be held on the south coast of New South Wales.(ABC Western Plains: Lucy Thackray)

“[The I Am, Space] will provide a culturally safe and inclusive environment for sensory stimulation, relaxation, and that’s where we can bring our children or other people with disabilities,” said Davis.

Ms Davis said it will be a controlled space to meet the needs of whoever uses it and will include trained support workers.

“The businesses we have in this space are all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. We also support Aboriginal businesses through the process of purchasing items,” she said.

Ms Davis has partnered with The Disability Trust to bring the multi-sensory space to the upcoming tournament in late September.

“For a lot of people, they just won’t go to these big events because they’re so busy, energetic and overwhelming,” said Edward Birt, chief operating officer of the Disability Trust.

“All the things that make them so fun are also things that can be a hindrance for some people.”

Mr Birt said the non-profit disability service provider was delighted to partner with The I Am, Space.

“It means families with children with sensory needs, who otherwise might not have gone, are going to be able to accompany, participate and just be included,” he said.

2020 trailblazer Tanika Davis presents to Parliament
Ms. Davis’ experience in Aboriginal health promotion helped her develop the I Am movement.(ABC Heywire: Mark Graham)

Ms. Davis said she hopes to expand the service, including at NAIDOC events.

“Our opportunities are endless at this point and we hope that from the Koori Knockout we can grow and have a long-term perspective,” she said.

The family “learns forever”

Ms Davis said that while her son Slade remained limited in his verbal communication, his family was constantly discovering new things about his personality.

“We learn about his quirky things that he really likes and those other things he really doesn’t like,” Ms. Davis said.

“You learn forever; every day is a new leap,” she said.

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