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Educator Yarns Episode 13 - Interview with Tanika Davis

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In this episode I Tanika Davis – a proud Aboriginal woman from Forster NSW and founder of ‘The I am, Movement.’

Jessica:

Well, thanks, Tanika, for joining me on the Educator Yarns podcast today.

Tenika:

Thank you for having me.

Jessica:

Okay. I thought we'd just start, if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the I Am, Movement.

Tenika:

Yeah, so I am Tanika Davis and I am a proud Worimi woman from the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. So, I grew up in Forster Tuncurry and been very blessed to have the saltwater people in part of my life for a long time. Yeah. So, the I Am, Movement, it started in July 2019, and it's been going for almost a year now. So very excited, yeah, to obviously be going for that time. We pretty much started the I Am, Movement based around our son's diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder.

Tenika:

So, he was diagnosed in late 2018 with ongoing appointments and ongoing specialist appointments in terms of OT and speech. And at this point, it was kind of a lead up to his diagnosis. During those appointments, we found that there was just something missing. We didn't quite know at this time. We found so much information about autism and what it was from a medical perspective, but in terms of a cultural perspective and something that families could take away from those appointments, we didn't see anything. And it started off as an idea in our lounge room after our son was diagnosed and we kind of took it from there.

Tenika:

We wanted to have a space in our own house to, I don't know, be culturally safe, I suppose, in the learning journey. And that's where we developed the I Am, Movement and the I Am kind of standing for, "I am whoever I want to be." So it's not to put a label on, "I am autistic," or, "I am someone with a disability." It's more of, you are who you are. And the Movement side of it was just something that we kind of linked on because it's going to be continually moving and developing as our son kind of develops as well. So, yeah.

Tenika:

So we took the idea to a artist in Kempsey, which is actually my husband's pop, and we took it to him as a concept and an idea, and he transformed this idea into this amazing artwork. We then developed a set of 123 flash cards and alphabet flash cards as well. Then later on we developed an emotion set of flash cards and they're really special because they're actually a graphic of our son's face. And so, we were able to develop that quite personally to him, so he was then able to emotion regulate himself and identify what emotions he was feeling.

Tenika:

We didn't kind of want these just to be kept to ourselves. Like I said, it's more about sharing, that everyone's journey is different. Whether you've got someone that's autistic or ADHD, it's something that is not talked about enough. I think it's got that real stigma around being shameful or it's something that they might just be naughty kids. So, we wanted to openly share our story and to share it in a positive light. And what better way to produce something that we have and have people be proud and comfortable?

Jessica:

Yeah. I think, look, everything you're saying I completely relate to. I remember when I first started working in early childhood and one of my first jobs was as a support worker. So, essentially back then it was about shadowing children that had various disabilities. And I was working with one child who had been diagnosed with autism. I had never even heard of autism before.

Tenika:

Neither had I, yeah.

Jessica:

I was just [crosstalk 00:05:37]. I'd never met somebody who had autism. It was so out of my thing. And there was a couple of children at this service. There was five services all on the one lot and they were known for working with children that had various types of needs. And from working with one child, and once I sort of thought that I had him sort of figured out and what worked and what he was interested in and so forth, and then the next child that came along, I thought, "Okay. Well, I'll just apply what I've learned here over here." And it didn't work at all, because clearly it's a spectrum and every child is so different.

Tenika:

So different, yeah.

Jessica:

I also came across exactly what you're saying is that there are, I find, with some cultures more so than others, a real resistance, maybe, of having a diagnosis because it is shameful or people are probably coming from that space where people don't understand what autism really is and what that means, that they feel it could be reflective on them. So, where do you think those feelings of shame come from? Do you find that it's common for many families as well?

Tenika:

Yeah. I think, for us, I suppose you go through that. You go through a couple of phases in a diagnosis journey, I suppose. Adrian and I were really lucky that we worked in health at the time and we had everything very assessable and we were able to go to our doctor's appointments and talk to people in the medical field that understood. And like I said, we were very well in the health industry there. I think we went through that stage of denial and second guessing the doctor's opinions. Then you go through this stage of like, "Why me? Why did this happen to me? Why? Will it go? Will this autism go or will this be with us for the rest of our life?"

Tenika:

And it's something that I didn't know about as well. I knew about autism but I didn't know the extent. And so, for us, it was educating ourselves. It's been a huge positive for us to step back and actually educate ourselves on what autism is. Is there a cure for it? All of this stuff. I think as a mum you're always wanting to know what the answer is. And if you don't even find the answer, you're still learning along the way. I think that stage of denial, everyone gets stuck in that. And in particular, I feel like Aboriginal [inaudible 00:08:29] on the families, they don't necessarily... Growing up, you always have some sort of stigma attached to you already.

Tenika:

So when you're looking at families, if you're a low socioeconomic family and you're living quite in a low socioeconomic area, you've already got that stigma attached to you and you're Aboriginal. So, having the start of life, another stigma attached to you, I think it's something that you don't want to have on your kid, regardless of a hidden disability or a disability. But I think the positives out of having the label of autism is that there is so much help out there and there's so much help and there's actual funding out there that needs to be spent on our kids. That's a whole different aspect of what we're trying to do as well. The NDIS system is just so rigorous. It's daunting. It's really scary to sit down and do a three hour key learning and you're doing all your goals and you're looking at what your child can't do that rather than-

Jessica:

That real deficit approach. Yeah.

Tenika:

Yeah. And it's really sad because, like I said, I hadn't had any family members go through this stage. And, for me, when I sat down in those appointments, I was like, "Oh my God." I cried. Three hours later you finally get to the end and they say, "Oh, well, what? We've looked at what they can't do. Let's look at what we want them to do in a timeframe."

Tenika:

So, I think for families out there that don't necessarily put a label on, there are people out there that want to help and there is ways to get help as well. We've had people reach out to us on our social media, for example, just about how we share our story and just really little things like, "Oh, I've noticed some things with our son, but we haven't really done anything about it. So, it's made us more confident to go and talk to a doctor, or a paediatrician, or a specialist." So, if we can help facilitate that just by doing what we're doing, for me, that's a tick of the box and we're helping families change their child's life in some little way.

Jessica:

For sure. I think your Instagram, I follow you on Insta, and it's very raw. I think you've even described it as being that yourself. I think because there are some really great moments and there are some really low moments and sad moments where it's challenging and it's confronting and it's not all easy. I think it's those struggles and challenges that make it even more relatable, the journey that you guys are going on. And it's hard on your relationship and all of those things. I think you can't even imagine what that would be like from the outside, unless you're actually in it.

Jessica:

But I think because you're so open and honest, your journey has been really relatable to so many families. And we both know that getting that diagnosis and getting early intervention before the age of three... Because, your son's still quite young, isn't he?

Tenika:

Yeah. He's four this month. So, we've had very early intervention, so-

Jessica:

And that's great.

Tenika:

... [crosstalk 00:12:08] 18 months getting diagnosed quite early then to what he is doing now.

Jessica:

We see that that has a really positive outcome when you do get those supports and that intervention in because there's so much brain development that's still occurring in those first three years. And so, I think the more that you can sort of support people to develop that confidence to go and talk to someone is so important. But I just wanted to touch on, I guess one of the reasons that I think it's important to note that Aboriginal families don't necessarily go and have these open conversations with doctors, particularly if they're in a mainstream health service, I know we do have Aboriginal Medical Services, but at the moment they close regularly and they're few and far between.

Jessica:

So, for an Aboriginal family to go to a mainstream health provider and talk openly about concerns that they have about their child, can you just share a little bit of information about why families might not feel that they can do that, Aboriginal families?

Tenika:

So in our circumstance, in particular, we were at an Aboriginal Medical Service when we kind of got the words of autism at our 18 month checkup. So, for us, we described some things about how he was acting and he was not really talking much. We thought it was a bit of a tongue tie at the start because he was doing some weird things with his tongue.

Tenika:

Then we moved from Sydney out to Dubbo at this stage. So in the middle of going to all of these pedes, we had to move to a different paediatrician. And when we got out to Dubbo, we actually were in a mainstream service. So, we went to a local doctor in Dubbo, mainstream, and we were kind of linked in with an Aboriginal family and child support service. So, for us, we were linked in with both, but we had to get our diagnosis from a paediatrician who wasn't indigenous. You're very lucky if you find an indigenous paediatrician or paediatric doctor.

Tenika:

So, we developed quite a really good relationship with this pede and it went on for about six or seven months. She had diagnosed quite a few Aboriginal children in that area. So I think she had quite a bit of understanding, but if you don't click with your pede or you don't click with your specialist straight away, you don't necessarily want to open up. And this is across the board. It's not just about your kids' health, it's about your own health, mental health. I don't know, I'm quite an intuition person, I feel people's emotions quite quickly. So if I don't click with someone in particular, it's not something that I necessarily want to keep having that relationship with.

Tenika:

And when I walked into the paediatrician, when we first met this pede, I clicked with her straightaway and I was quite honest with her straight up. And I just said, "Look, we got the word autism when we left Sydney. Can you help us with what we need to do next?" And she didn't diagnose Slade straight away. Every month we went into her and she kind of sat there for an hour and just seeing how he was developing, what he was eating, and all of this stuff.

Tenika:

So, in my instance, it was quite a positive journey to leading up to that diagnosis. I knew it was coming. I knew that diagnosis was coming after our last appointment with her, but when she formally said it, it was like a whole 'nother thing. I had to sit there and I cried. I sat there and cried because I was like, "I don't know why I'm crying. I knew it was coming and you were going to say it, but I think it just puts everything into perspective." But you know what? If anything, I had a really positive experience with that.

Jessica:

It sounds like there's a few things that happened in your journey that was good. You started these conversations in a space that was culturally safe, so with community, and that sort of gave you that foundation of preparing you, I suppose. But because the diagnosis came slowly and the pede didn't just rush into it to give that to you, but over that time you were building a rapport and a relationship and not just being bombarded with a whole heap of questions the first time that you met and the assessment wasn't overbearing. I think that that's really important. And I see the same thing when Aboriginal families enrol in mainstream early learning services. Don't rush things. Don't come at things too quickly.

Jessica:

I think one of the things for me, I know potentially why some Aboriginal families are reluctant to be open with mainstream health providers and mainstream early learning services, and it goes back to under the act and what happened historically with our families. And that was that a lot of children were removed from schools and hospitals and there was a lot of abuse and racism and discrimination handed out. And I think historically with families, they sort of thought that if they admitted to mental health issues or their ability to parent their child, then that potentially would be all that was needed for these health professionals to report them and the child to be removed or taken away in some way. So, I think that there is that. Intergenerational trauma also has a part to play as to why our families aren't so open with health professionals about concerns they have about their children.

Tenika:

Yeah. I think as well, like in some experiences that I've heard of, that a lot of people actually get some of their, not diagnosis, but the first person that will kind of look at that is their educator or their primary school teacher. Or they will say to the parents, "We've seen this in your child. Do you think that you should go and maybe get a diagnosis or get a paediatrician to look?" And sometimes that, in a mainstream service, can be quite daunting too because you've got someone saying to you, "Oh, your child is showing signs of..." Not necessarily saying it, but educators are trained necessarily in this space and they see signs all of the time, and they obviously have a high turnover of kids.

Tenika:

And it's finding that one person in your centre that you feel comfortable in talking to as well, I think. So, for me, Slade's been in care for a long time and we wanted to get him back into care because I went back to work when I was in Sydney. He was in a centre where it was all non-indigenous educators and quite a high population of international families, which we were like, "Oh. Well, yeah, Slade gets that cultural difference from other different cultures," and that was great. Then when we moved to Dubbo, we got him into a really good space and we were really happy with the educators there. I still keep in contact with them. So, it's nice to be able to feel that sense of belonging wherever you go.

Tenika:

Now that we're here in Newcastle, Slade's actually in a centre here where it's all indigenous kids. So, I'm going to touch wood here, he does not cry anymore to go into the centre. He runs in and he loves it. And, for me, that's so special because I know, I know so much in my heart that he feels connected culturally there. And it's not our country here, but the way that the centre is. It's a safe space and there's things in their centre and things at home that he connects to. I'm very fortunate that we've been able to get him into that space and for him to feel comfortable in that. It goes back to saying, what you do in the household as well is always going to transform them when they do hit kindie or preschool.

Tenika:

But, on the other hand, I know how hard it is for other families to access these kind of services. And, I'm going to go back to saying, families with a child with a disability are high chance of having a separation or a divorce and it is really hard on your relationship. It's not easy. I've certainly been through our own experiences with our marriage and our relationship. I think we go back to just trying to be grounded with what we're doing and with what we want to achieve for our son.

Tenika:

For those families that have three, or four, or five kids in a household, and sometimes you've got aunties and uncles living with you, or grandparents even, that can sometimes be really hard to have that one-on-one time with your child. But I feel like the best thing that we've got on our side is our culture. We've got these things inside of us and intrinsically that we can express culture in a different way. And it's not necessarily reading a book or the normal ways of educating, it's being out in the nature and connecting to the land.

Tenika:

I love nature play based activities and we do a lot of that at our own home. I think that there should be more of this and definitely feeling like the child's benefiting in a different way, not necessarily communicating by saying. I feel like that's what we've had to learn because a lot of the time we're second guessing and we're trying to navigate what Slade's saying to us. A lot of the time we've been able to connect to an outside environment more than an inside environment when we're doing his therapy or we're just doing normal activities with him at home.

Tenika:

So, yeah, I know that you work in such a space where it's kind of in the preschools and in the centres and that's awesome. And my son goes to preschool, so it's not something that I'm saying, "Do this and do that." It's just that it works for us and-

Jessica:

That's right. And I think that some of the things that you're doing as well, I mean, it's about creating a culturally safe service and that can happen in an Aboriginal specific service and it can also happen in a mainstream service. But some of the things that you've created, so your flash cards, your numbers and alphabet flash cards, and then your emotions, the emotional... Is that what they're called, emotion cards?

Tenika:

Yeah, emotion cards, yeah.

Jessica:

Yeah. I think they're culturally safe for our children as well, because we look at preparing children for transition to school and having resources that are reflective of your cultural identity and contextualising your curriculum through culture is really important. But I always tell educators that, "Imagine books like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, or Magic Beach, or something like that. Imagine that it wasn't a white family, but it was an Aboriginal family that was in that story." And these resources and the literacy, it has to be reflective of Aboriginal children. So, for Slade, having emotion cards that reflect him and to see children that look like him is really important to connect.

Tenika:

And that's important. It's important for Aboriginal families as well, but also, we've had families that are from an Indian background or a Maori background that have actually said to us, "Our child connects to this because of the tone of the face." It's not because it's an Aboriginal boy, it's the tone of the face. It's not just a white kid stuck on a piece of paper or printed out. It's actually something that's been thought out. And we didn't think it would touch other cultures, but that's the beauty of it. It's something that's versatile and so special, I suppose, and you would know in your work.

Jessica:

To me, it's so obvious.

Tenika:

Yeah.

Jessica:

It's so obvious that of course you would need something like that. But the fact that these resources are not widely available, they're not in mainstream toy catalogues or anything like that, and often they're seen, if they're specialist, they're really expensive. And then, so for the people that need them the most, which are Aboriginal families in our community, all of a sudden, well, they're priced out of it because they're seen as a specialist thing.

Jessica:

So yours are, the price point is accessible for families. It's for community, it's for their children. And for you, it comes from a place that it's like, "If I can just help one other family to not go through the same amount of struggles as us, then that's job well done." It's-

Tenika:

Yeah. And we're exploring other avenues, like trying to get it NDIS approved. We're trying to be certified, so that people who have kids on the NDIS system, they can purchase through their budget and they don't have an out of pocket expense, for example. So, we're still exploring that. I suppose we want to make sure it's accessible for everyone. This year, I suppose, has been another year where we've had to reflect quite differently in what we've done in the past with having stockists, people like yourself, come to us and say, "Can we stock your cards in our store?"

Tenika:

And that, for me, I love being able to provide that because it's still accessible. It's still out there. It's just something that people can purchase in a different way. We've finally had New South Wales Health and other health services come on board just recently, so that's been really exciting. But it's not something that I wanted to target at just education or health. It's something that works hand in hand and can be given to people even without a communication delay or disorder or something. So, it's something for everyone. And like you said, going back to that cultural identity, and you'll see with our ABC cards that each letter actually has a native animal or symbol on there. So, we've got kids that can identify their totem or they can identify stories of the nature and the animals. I just love that they can facilitate storytelling as well because that's so important.

Jessica:

They're really open-ended and that's what I loved about them as well. I think not only do they really celebrate Aboriginal art and it's great for pre-literacy skills and so forth for formal schooling, but they're so open-ended with the possibilities of how you can use them. So, I'm waiting for my first set to arrive so I can start playing.

Tenika:

Yeah.

Jessica:

Well, I was going to tell everyone as well that you have your own podcast. And so that's called the I Am, Movement Podcast, is that right?

Tenika:

No, it's called Autism Our Way.

Jessica:

Oh, okay, great.

Tenika:

So, yeah, we've flipped it a bit, but yeah, it's something that's a bit specific to autism, I suppose.

Jessica:

And so, I really encourage people that are sort of listening to continue to follow your journey. And you also have guests on your podcast as well.

Tenika:

Yeah. We've got some really exciting guests. I mean, the way that we wanted to celebrate NAIDOC Week is to have guests that want to share their story. I kind of put out a bit of a thing on Facebook and just said, "Look, if anyone is wanting to share their story, we're jumping on the podcast. We're getting in there." And we've had such an enormous amount of people just write back and saying, "Yeah." So, we've got mums with kids with autism. We've also got a few dads, which is so exciting because I love that we can share that dad side of what we are doing. We always hear about mums and I am very excited to be able to interview some dads and just see how they're going.

Tenika:

And it's not just boys with autism, it's girls with autism. We've got specialists in the area. So, we've got Sue Larkey coming on and chatting to us, which will be our first release and that'll kind of set the scene. She's kind of like the go-to person for autism and I'm very, very fortunate to be able to have her on. We've got an Aboriginal doctor as well, who actually has a son with autism as well. Educators. Yeah, we've got a really jam-packed week, NAIDOC week.

Jessica:

That's awesome.

Tenika:

So, look out, it's going to be so exciting. Yeah.

Jessica:

Yeah. We'll be binge listening, as we do with all of them. And the theme for the 2020 NAIDOC is "Always was, always will be." And so, when we jumped on the podcast today, we're both wearing our Closing The Gap shirts.

Tenika:

I love it.

Jessica:

Obviously, if you're listening, you can't hear it, but if you're watching the video version of this, you can see. So these are from Closing The Gap, so we're representing.

Tenika:

Yeah, I love it.

Jessica:

We're twinning, unintentionally.

Tenika:

Yes, twinning.

Jessica:

Because it's freezing.

Tenika:

Yeah.

Jessica:

I'm on the Central Coast and Tanika's in Newcastle and it is freezing today, so I was just like, "I need a long sleeved shirt."

Tenika:

Same.

Jessica:

No, we're representing.

Tenika:

Yeah.

Jessica:

Well, thanks so much for jumping on and being so open and sharing your journey with me. I think you're doing a great job. So, people can listen to Autism Our Way, your podcast, and binge listen during NAIDOC Week. They can check out your social media handle on Insta and visit your websites. I'll link all of those for you in the notes of this episode. But, yeah, we really appreciate it. So, thanks, Tanika.

Tenika:

Thank you so much for having me on and I'm very excited to be able to just share again. It's nice.

Jessica:

Yeah, cool. All right. Well, thank you. I'll talk to you next time. Bye.

Tenika:

Thanks, Jess.

Jessica:

Thanks for listening to today's podcast. To find out more information about the Koori Curriculum and how we can best support you and your early learning service, visit www.kooricurriculum.com.

 

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