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Takiwātanga: The Māori Phrase Used To Describe Autism

What Is Autism?

Autism is defined as a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition of variable severity that is characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviors. The spectrum looks different for every person diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The Māori are an indigenous New Zealand culture who have a beautiful outlook on autism. They don’t view autism as a disability, but as a deeper connection with the rhythms of nature and the world in a time and place of their own compared to neurotypical people.

In 2017, autism was added to the Māori te reo language as ‘Takiwātanga’ (“tōku anō takiwā”), which translates to “my own time and space.”

Understanding Autism in New Zealand

New Zealand has never run a formal study on the prevalence of autism and has no national registry. Several studies have helped identify the number of children on the spectrum, but most were done on smaller scales than that of the CDC and by privately-owned companies. Their results seem to underrepresent the prevalence of autism.

The Hutt Valley District Health Board ran a study between 2012-2016, which revealed that autism diagnoses were made in 1 per 1,500 children, and males were diagnosed four times more frequently than females. Of the 228 children diagnosed with ASD that made up the study, 55.2% identified as New Zealand/European, followed by 23.6% Māori, and 4.3% as Pasifika.

These studies report significantly lower rates of autism among the population in comparison to international research. It is likely the methods used to gather data undercount the occurrence of autism in New Zealand potentially by about 40% by ignoring rural areas and populations of lower income, according to a 2020 study.

However, these studies are establishing more comprehensive evidence that will pave the way for further research, and eventually, government policies for support systems related to autism in New Zealand. This may also help prove that autism is more prevalent in males in New Zealand.

The Revival of a Disappearing Culture

 Māori is the indigenous culture of the natives of New Zealand who speak te reo. When New Zealand was colonized in the mid-1800s, the cultures clashed and mixed, and eventually, English became the prominent language.

The Māori themselves spoke a combination of English and Māori te reo, but as time passed, the Māori language and culture rapidly declined. In 2006, 84% of the Māori population was still in New Zealand, yet only one in four spoke te reo.

More recent efforts aim to revive the culture by speaking it again and creating a dictionary of Māori te reo words and phrases, including creating new words for more modern concepts not previously known to the Māori culture, like autism.

Breathing Life Back into the Culture

Since its decline post-WWII, the Māori has seen a resurgence in New Zealand. Through peaceful protests in the 60s and 70s, they were able to reclaim land taken from them during colonial times, with many Māori cultural leaders taking positions in New Zealand politics.

The Māori renaissance (starting in 1970) has been a remarkable phenomenon in the revitalization of their culture. From architecture to poetry, the Māori saw a spike in cultural pride that has continued to grow.

Even though government buildings were built using the traditional Māori longhouse architectural styles, their language continued to disappear.

A Lifelong Friendship

Out of fear that the language would be lost to time, Māori author, educator, and social activist, Keri Opai, was tasked with creating a glossary of the Māori language in 2017. This Included creating words that hadn’t yet existed. One word missing from the Māori dialect that Keri held dear was autism.

Keri’s childhood friend, Peter, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder just before entering high school. Keri formed a relationship with Peter by standing up for him when he was bullied, and they became inseparable.

“This was my introduction to autism and the misunderstanding surrounding it.” Said Keri in an interview with a local news station. “So, when I took on the privilege of creating a Māori word and concept to describe it, my first thought was that I wanted to honor my life-long friend, Peter.”

Keri Opai explains the meaning behind “Takiwātanga,” or my own time and space, by equating Peter’s conversations to the teachings of his kaumātua (Māori elders). The conversations would meander and go on tangents, but if you listened carefully, you could find infinite amounts of wisdom in their stories.

Keri hopes his interpretation pays respect to the people, friends, caregivers, and whānau (extended family) with autism.

“He mana tō te kupu” – “Words have great power.” <YouTube video of Keri speaking on Takiwātanga, might need the embedded code for the blog page itself.

Sources Cited:

Drysdale, H. & Van Der Meer, L. Rates of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses for children and adolescents in the Hutt Valley Region of New Zealand

Bowden, N., Thabrew, H., Kokaua, J. & Audas, R. Autism spectrum disorder/Takiwātanga: An Integrated Data Infrastructure-based approach to autism spectrum disorder research in New Zealand

Ahukaramū, T. The Story of the Māori

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