Photo: TEDx speaker and Autism Expert Jolene Stockman receives a gift from the KCA NBDS team for sharing her journey with the ASD Conference.

Ogimaawabiitong (Kenora Chiefs Advisory) sends a heartfelt Miigwetch to everyone who helped to make our Honouring the Children, Honouring their Gifts ASD [Autism] Conference such a special three-day gathering, filled with stories of resilience, self-advocacy, and hope.

Hosted by KCA Niigaanning Bimaadiziwin Child & Youth Development Services (NBDS) and Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation on January 30, 31 and February 1, the conference shared experience, knowledge, and traditional teachings about children with autism from an Indigenous lens.

One of the first of its kind in northwestern Ontario, the gathering in Wauzhushk Onigum’s CDC building held over 100 service providers and frontline staff of KCA communities in Treaty #3, along with those following a livestream online.

MC Gary Smith helped kick off the opening ceremonies along with singers and drummers on Wauzhushk Onigum’s Ogichidaa drum, followed by opening remarks from Elders Allan White, Doreen Skead and Terry Skead, as well as NBDS Director Karen Foster and the community’s Chief Chris Skead.

“When it comes to our children, especially when we honour their gifts, to us – to the Anishinaabe people – our people are so much closer to the creator,” explains Chief Skead.

“These conversations will provide us with the opportunity to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion for those with autism – and equip everyone in attendance with the chance to be more educated about autism, and how we can support those with autism within our First Nation communities to ensure they are getting the support and programming they need,” adds Chief Skead.

Keynote speakers Jolene Stockman, Grant Bruno, Rona Sterling Collins, Theresa Tssessaze, all shared their lived experiences as a caregiver or a person diagnosed with autism, with incredible stories of breaking down barriers, self-advocacy, determination, and success.

Stockman, a writer, Autism expert, and TEDx speaker, shared her story of navigating childhood with undiagnosed autism and embracing her Indigenous heritage, and touched on the need to advocate for new Autism definitions in the medical world, as well as the importance of diversity between all people.

“For many people, being autistic is an innate part of our identity – the spark of who we are,” explains Stockman. “It’s a lens in which we experience the world. A child’s true self is not buried under their autism. An adult doesn’t recover from their autism. Autism doesn’t need to be cured or fixed. We’re not sick or broken. Being autistic in this world is hard, but not because we’re autistic, but because the world is ignorant. Children don’t grow out of autism; we grow into it.”

Bruno, with a PhD in Medical Sciences from the University of Alberta, is conducting the first study of its kind in Canada as he explores how Autism is viewed and supported in the Indigenous culture, explaining that Elders see autism as a gift and a variety of supports have been in place for hundreds of years.

“You have to take it on an individual basis. Sometimes you have to be creative. You have to support them, but not make them feel like they’re not enough.  Autistic people deserve to feel connected. They’re here to teach us things that no one else can. As neurotypical people, it’s important for us to really celebrate these children and these people. In our world, they’re sacred children.”

Elders from the KCA Elders Advisory Council and surrounding communities later provided their wisdom and knowledge passed down from generation to generation on the third day of the conference, including traditional practices, medicines, and land-based methods that families have utilized for children with the gift of autism.

“Life is full of challenges and obstacles,” says Elder Farrell Desrosiers. “Especially in today’s world when we have the Anishinaabe way and the contemporary way of life. But we’ve been given ways on how to receive life. What we’ve shared is how we receive life. And that is truth. And it’s gatherings like this where we are fortunate to receive the life and wisdom of the people who have shared.”

KACL and Firefly also provided sensory sessions and engagement tables to highlight their services in the community, alongside an Indigenous crafters market with local clothing and jewelry. Wauzhushk Onigum community staff also provided lunch and dinner each day.

The conference coincided with a special evening of Legends and Storytelling with Elder Allan White on January 30, with a Round Dance and a visit from special singers and drummers on January 31 in Wauzhushk Onigum’s CDC building – helping honour the spirits that gathered throughout the event.

“I’d like to thank our Elders for being here, our drum, and all of the participants here and online,” said Director of NBDS, Karen Foster. “This is for people who are parents of people with autism, and service providers for our children and communities. It’s a safe space for us to learn from one another, and how we can better service our children and our families with autism.”

Miigwetch to Wauzhushk Onigum staff and leadership for hosting such a special gathering, our Elders for providing their guidance and generational wisdom, our keynote speakers for sharing such incredible stories, and everyone who came out to learn about how to better support our children with autism.

A special Miigwetch to WOLFE Inc. for providing the sound system and livestream, MC Gary Smith for helping coordinate the conference, KACL and Firefly staff for their support, and KCA staff who organized the three-day gathering.

You can find videos of the three-day gathering on our YouTube channel HERE.

Autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. It presents in many ways and can affect sensory processing, social communication, ability to carry out certain tasks, and emotional and behavioural regulation.

Every Autistic person has a unique combination of symptoms and symptom intensity. Many individuals may also have co-occurring conditions. Since everyone experiences the condition differently, support should match your individual needs.

It’s estimated that 1 in 50 children and youth aged 1 to 17 years old have been diagnosed in Canada.

Families looking for support for children with Autism are asked to contact the KCA NBDS program by emailing, or by calling the KCA Main office at 1-807-467-8144.