Takiwātanga – in your own time and space

Issue: Volume 102, Number 1

Posted: 2 February 2023
Reference #: 1HAZ8K

A series of five marae-based wānanga exploring takiwātanga (autism) from a Māori world view has offered a unique strengths-based lens for specialist educators, support staff and whānau.

Dorothy Taare-Smith with her mokopuna, Carni (7) at Kaiti Beach, Gisborne.

Dorothy Taare-Smith with her mokopuna, Carni (7) at Kaiti Beach, Gisborne.

Marae-based Taonga Takiwātanga wānanga have now been offered to more than 300 kaimahi in five regions throughout the North Island.

“We are moving away from viewing autism as a ‘dis’-ability as it is currently perceived from a western paradigm. Through the wānanga series, the word/kupu ‘takiwātanga’ is used extensively as we see it as a mana-enhancing term rather than a deficit term,” explains Dorothy Taare-Smith (Ngāti Porou) education facilitator for the Taonga Takiwātanga Charitable Trust.

“Taonga Takiwātanga is a mana-enhancing term, which regards people with autism as gifted, or taonga. Takiwātanga, a term coined by linguist and educator Keri Opai (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Te Ata, Waiohua, Ngāti Porou) means ‘in his/her own time and space’.

“Many whānau choose to use the kupu as it moves from a clinical term to one that is non-threatening, easily understood and encapsulates a sense of aroha and manaaki,” she says.

With a background in learning support and autistic mokopuna, Dorothy is founder of the Trust, established in 2020, which was initially established to offer professional learning and development (PLD) for educators and support to whānau in Tairāwhiti. 

The Trust aims to educate and raise awareness about an indigenous perspective of autism. The marae-based wānanga programme was developed by Dorothy in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

Dorothy and her moko Carni.

Dorothy and her moko Carni.

Te ao Māori view

Programme attendees have included resource teachers of learning and behaviour (RTLB), learning support specialists, teacher aides, kaiako from kōhanga reo/early learning services, kura kaupapa and whānau.

Dorothy says there have been a number of firsts at the wānanga.

“Māori have had to rely on international research that doesn’t align with te ao Māori way of thinking and understanding. The Trust was the first to deliver autism training with an indigenous lens and the first to deliver authentic te ao Māori training sessions on more than one marae.

“We initiated a system whereby an invitation by mana whenua is a prerequisite before visiting and presenting outside of Tairāwhiti. We deliver wānanga to highly populated Māori communities, with our preference being to deliver to rural communities so that professionals and whānau don’t have to travel to city centres,” she says.

Mana-enhancing concept

Four learning objectives were developed for the wānanga.

  1. To build knowledge and understanding of takiwātanga and change the mindset of how takiwātanga are viewed.
  2. To build education practitioner confidence to support whānau with takiwātanga.
  3. To strengthen whanaungatanga: building community connections and supports.
  4. To increase understanding of children’s rights in the context of education and the responsibilities of school services.

Two world views

Each wānanga focused on:

  • Taonga Takiwātanga explained 
  • Listening to whānau voice through shared stories
  • The rights of children with disabilities, with a focus on education
  • Connection with each other and navigating local support networks.

The difference between the two perspectives of autism and assessment, diagnosis and ongoing supports for autism are discussed at the wānanga.

“As we know it, the assessment, diagnosis, advice and ongoing supports are heavily steeped in a western way of thinking. We talked about the dearth of literature, research and theory that reported on Māori and autism, suggesting that a Māori approach to autism is largely misunderstood,” says Dorothy.

She explains that in te ao Māori, understanding the concept of autism is guided by tikanga, kawa (Māori protocol), wairua and whānau.

“It is widely mentioned within te ao Māori that children with autism are seen as taonga who have a strong sense of wairua (a strong spirit). The unseen carries mana, meaning children with autism have an ability to strongly connect with a higher spiritual realm,” explains Dorothy.

Whānau voice

Whānau were offered an opportunity to speak about what life is like with a taonga takiwatanga child. Whānau voice had an emotional impact on the participants, and most left with greater empathy and understanding, says Dorothy.  

For example:

  • In 17 years, I have never felt so understood. I can’t describe how it feels to finally be part of something that shows our diversity and uniqueness is OK. From the bottom of my heart THANK YOU”.
  • Living rurally, we miss out on so many services compared to the city.

My son has not been supported properly over the seven years and is still struggling in school to get the things he really needs and at home we have struggled with behaviours and time is always spent on one child and I have four children altogether. 

“We have become accustomed to a western way of thinking about autism. Many Māori have a way of understanding the world around us and are in tune with their taha wairua/spirituality. Our tamariki are not broken and do not need ‘fixing’,” explains Dorothy. 

She says that taonga takiwātanga should be celebrated.

“We need to move away from a deficit model of thinking, something we have adopted from a clinical paradigm which does not align to an indigenous way of knowing and understanding.”

Whānau of Regan Wiringi, who has an autism diagnosis, attended the first wānanga at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Gisborne in March 2021. Regan and Dorothy were photographed at Te Poho o Rawiri Marae, Gisborne in January 2023.

Whānau of Regan Wiringi, who has an autism diagnosis, attended the first wānanga at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Gisborne in March 2021. Regan and Dorothy were photographed at Te Poho o Rawiri Marae, Gisborne in January 2023.

Relationships and connection

A collaborative approach with whānau, educators and agencies allows all parties to understand their respective roles which can produce better outcomes for tamariki and whānau.

Agencies from the health and disability sector attended the wānanga and talked about their services, eligibility criteria and how they could support schools and whānau. 

“Importantly, the hope was for the services to manaaki each other, work together and move away from operating in silos.

“Having a strong advocate who has extensive knowledge and an insight into the services whānau may want to access within the disability, health, education and social sectors makes a huge difference,” says Dorothy.

Legal rights

One clear observation from the wānanga was that many educators who attended had little knowledge about their legal obligations as educators and the rights of children with disabilities and in some cases didn’t know if their school/learning centre have policies preventing discrimination and bullying. 

“I noticed that there was very little knowledge about the NELP (National Statement of Education and Learning Priorities) and Tātaiako (Cultural Competencies for teachers of Māori learners) in the context of children with learning support needs. Educators need to know their legal obligations, the rights of children with learning support needs and the role of the Board of Trustees,” concludes Dorothy.

Pā harakeke nurtures whole whānau

Attending a Taonga Takiwātanga wānanga ‘flipped the script’ for one child and her whānau, says Leah Thompson (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Whānaunga, Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Tara Tokanui), a resource teacher learning and behaviour (RTLB) in Waikato and Raukawa. 

“We don’t view those tamariki as deficient in any way, we see them as being part of our whānau, so that can be a shift of thinking for some professionals,” says Leah, who is part of a dedicated Māori medium team in Cluster 16.

Leah Thompson (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Whānaunga, Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Tara Tokanui), a resource teacher learning and behaviour (RTLB) in Waikato and Raukawa. 

Leah Thompson (Ngāti Paoa, Ngāti Whānaunga, Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Tara Tokanui), a resource teacher learning and behaviour (RTLB) in Waikato and Raukawa. 

Leah attended a wānanga in the Waikato along with a whānau she was working alongside, the child’s kaiawhina and a representative from the Ministry of Education.

“The whānau were getting a lot of deficit views about autism and we wanted to flip the script. The whānau were really keen to engage and so it was a way of upskilling and working together so that we all had a shared understanding,” she says.

Strength in Pā Harakeke

Pā Harakeke is an analogy for whānau which places mokopuna in the centre of the flax plant (rito) with parents, grandparents, whānau and hāpu wrapped around the child, like the leaves of harakeke.

“Often the whānau I work alongside are under pressure and learning as they go. We educationalists are only there for a short time, but we’re still building that sustainability of the pā harakeke to grow strong. We all wrap around the mokopuna and we all do it together. There’s strength in unity,” says Leah.

Transformational and sustainable

Attending the wānanga with Leah was transformational for the whānau and their kura.

“They were thrilled to bits with what they learned there. At that stage they were thinking of moving their child to a specialist school/kura, but just by seeing all of the stakeholders involved, they made the call to stay in an immersion setting and I think that was the right call for that ākonga. 

“When we got down to the depths of it, the whānau just wanted their mokopuna to be unapologetically and proudly Māori and included in a rich kura kaupapa setting,” says Leah.

The kura, supported by the marae, was able to see that making adaptations for the ākonga will benefit other mokopuna. 

“We know that there are going to be more, so it was a way of building capacity and sustainability – strengthening the Pā Harakeke,” says Leah.

Attending the wānanga motivated the kura to use narrative assessment to show learning, which is a Māori way of transferring knowledge and understanding, explains Leah.

“Once they started to go into narrative assessment and the kura was sharing learning that was happening in the kura, the whānau would develop that at home. The kōrero and stories going back and forth was a really rich experience for both of them.”

Building on strengths benefits all

The marae-based culturally responsive session enabled whānau to immediately feel comfortable.

“It wasn’t in a medical or academic setting. They could see non-Māori professionals coming into our spaces, so straight away those relationships are being built in a way that is more comfortable for the whānau and the professionals are able to make inroads quicker because that whakawhanaungatanga has already been done correctly.” 

Leah believes that a te ao Māori approach can help all autistic children.

“We have a real inclusive holistic way in our culture. I’ve worked in mainstream, bilingual and immersion settings and my practice is consistent. I use the same strategies and they work in non-Māori settings so in my experience, our te ao Māori approach works for all mokopuna. 

“When we see mokopuna as they truly are, straight away we can start to build on their strengths,” she concludes.

 To find out more, see www.taongatakiwatanga.co.nz(external link) 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:48 am, 2 February 2023

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