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Raising Autism Awareness in the Polynesian Community

Realtor Mele Brown is proud of her Pacific Island heritage. Her tight-knit, extended Polynesian family supported and mentored her during her formative years growing up in Long Beach, CA and Salt Lake City, UT and molded her into the self-made woman she is. Her innate independence and creativity, coupled with her strong cultural work ethic, has given her the confidence to navigate challenges and set the course of her own future. What it did not prepare her for was an autism diagnosis for her oldest son at the age of three and then again a second diagnosis for her daughter around the age of one. Since then, Mele and her husband Ala have made it a part of their life’s work to educate, advocate and promote awareness of autism in the Polynesian community. As April is World Autism Month, we would like to share Mele’s journey and celebrate her work for the Pacific Autism Alliance.


The expectations in the Polynesian community are high for how a child should behave. They are taught from a young age to work hard, be respectful, and do as they are told. On the downside, there is little patience for a child who speaks out of turn, does not follow directions, or behaves improperly. As Mele explains, “In our culture, kids who ‘act out,’ well, there is a lot of mistreatment.” 

Before her son’s diagnosis, Mele was at a loss for her son’s behavior. She felt personally judged when people would ask, “Why is he flapping his arms? Why is he jumping?” Some in her extended family and community suggested harsh and insensitive treatment. When the diagnosis came it was equal parts relief and devastation. Mele and Ala were relieved that their son was not just “spoiled” as was often said to them. But the task and stigma of what lay ahead was daunting and they did not know where to begin

Finding Treatments that Fit

Mele is forever grateful for her pediatrician, Mark Templeman at Intermountain Healthcare, who first spotted and diagnosed her son’s behavior. “He put us in touch with the people who we needed to see, and gave us a long list of resources.” But many of the treatments recommended made Mele wary. She didn’t want her son to be overly medicated, rather she was interested in exploring out-of-the-box treatment ideas.

One of the benefits of having a large-extended family is you are bound to be related to someone who can help you with whatever you are facing. It just so happened that Mele’s first cousin, Katalina Takuvaka, was receiving a Masters in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The two of them connected and began discussing alternative medication and behavioral therapy options. These conversations, along with conversations Katalina was having with other families in the Polynesian community, began to coalesce into something bigger.

The Pacific Autism Alliance

Shortly after Mele and Ala began talking to Katalina, she and her cousin Emily Vasila’a had the idea to begin a Facebook support group. They envisioned the group as a safe place where anyone, “who is blessed with lives in the autism spectrum… [can] post events, support quotes, and maybe just vent.” Here, Mele’s family has found not just a community that shares a common culture and understands their autism journey, but also a place where they can share and learn. “The group has helped me find treatments and work through a lot of trial and error options like how to correctly use CBD water.”

The Pacific Autism Alliance (PAA) now has 309 group members and serves autistic families and learners all over the world. Their service projects support not just those of Polynesian descent, but any family or individual facing the challenges of autism.

In Mele’s words, “I’m truly grateful for the Pacific Autism Alliance Group for providing tools and resources for our children and parents. But more importantly, being a voice of hope and a beacon of love in enduring our journey together as we share our stories. There’s a saying that I believe in, ‘If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.’”

The Pingree Autism Center

Learn more about Salt Lake’s autism community in our February 2020 article, “A Valentine for the Pingree Autism Center.”

Niche Homes is a full-service real estate agency specializing in Wasatch Front neighborhoods and enclaves. Contact us if you are interested in buying or selling a home.

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