A sister’s story fuels this scientist
By Louise Kinross
Krissy Doyle-Thomas is a neuroscientist at Holland Bloorview. She’s studying whether a brain-imaging tool that detects blood oxygen levels can identify pain in children with autism who use little or no speech.
CBC profiled Krissy during Black History Month as one of 150 black women who have made a place in Canadian history for excellence in their field.
BLOOM: What led you into children’s rehab?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: For me it was out of a need. My younger sister Eddie-Marie was born at seven months and there were some complications: she wasn’t getting all of the oxygen she needed. She was diagnosed with global developmental delay when she was very young.
We were a young immigrant family trying to navigate how to get help for her. We were in and out of SickKids for a very long time, meeting with specialists to address her medical needs in addition to trying to understand her global delay. The lack of answers my parents had about how to best support her really impacted our family.
I was connected to the frustrations and stresses my parents were feeling and that started my desire to learn more, and to be someone who has that kind of information to share. I initially wanted to become a medical doctor. But then I went to school for psychology and I discovered the brain during one of my courses and I said ‘This is what I want to do.’
BLOOM: Some people look at the brain and don’t want anything to do with it!
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I’m intrigued by the mystery of it. The fact that one organ controls everything we do. Of course we have other vital organs, like the heart. But the way our understanding of self and the way in which we operate sits in that one place, for me that is intriguing. I wanted to learn about the thing that makes me most like myself. And then when things go wrong, how can we address that? My passion is on the research side. I’m passionate about using the information I have to help find solutions for treatment, and also to educate people about the brain and the disorders I study.
BLOOM: How is your sister doing now?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: She’s fantastic. She’s grown into a very independent, mature woman. She’s married and has a little girl. She’s got a knack for computers. My dad is an accountant and she supports his business. She knows how to handle data. She’s developed a life that is who she wants to be. But growing up she had a hard time comparing herself to her sisters, who are all now senior executives in the business world, or me, with my PhD. When she let go of that, she really blossomed in her own way.
What I learned was how we view success is a personal thing, it’s individualized. When my parents finally came to terms with the fact that Eddie doesn’t need to fit into the same mould that their other daughters do, that allowed Eddie to be who she really is. To accept herself and the ‘wonderfulness’ that she is.
BLOOM: Can you describe your research?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: We’re using a new brain imaging tool that is portable and inexpensive and allows us to image the brain and see changes in blood flow in response to a task or state. When neurons are active they require oxygen and blood flow goes quickly to the active areas. As oxygen is released the signal changes and we can see where in the brain is active.
We want to see if this can pick up the pain response in kids who have autism and are non-verbal. Our clinical partners see these kids in our psychopharmacology clinic. They’re referred for aggression and irritability, but we don’t really know what might be driving this behavioural response. Often times later on the clinicians discover medical conditions that are very painful. We’re trying to create a tool that could be used in the clinic to help identify kids who may be experiencing pain and can’t tell us.
BLOOM: What’s challenging about the work?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: Understanding the cortical pain response in itself is a challenge, in the absence of emotion. How are we going to think about pain when physical and emotional pain may happen in tandem? A lot of times both need to be treated. We want to know if we can get a reliable signal that will warrant medical intervention.
BLOOM: Why did you choose to study autism?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I really wanted to study global developmental delay, but when I was in school there weren’t many researchers looking at that. I thought autism is another developmental disorder, if I start there, perhaps I can learn generalizable skills. Then when I’m an independent researcher, I can branch out. My end goal is to make my way back to studying global developmental delay.
BLOOM: What do you love about your research?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I love that it provides answers to families, not definitive answers, but more information that helps families understand the brain and autism and will eventually be translated into care and treatment.
BLOOM: Autism is a controversial area because many autistic adults are opposed to the idea of cure and want others to value their way of thinking.
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I agree with them. It goes back to how I felt about my sister. When a person figures out their identity, we embrace that. If someone wants to embrace their autism as who they are, we need to be respectful of that. And if someone wants to treat their autism, we have to respect that. It needs to be individualized.
BLOOM: You were talking about what you love about your job.
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I meet really cool kids and they’re all so different and I appreciate that. I think diversity is very important. You meet all kinds of people with different abilities, ethnic backgrounds, genders. Everyone brings something to the table. You learn so much about being a human being by walking in the halls here. That’s what I love about being in an academic health centre. It helps me to have a new outlook on life—be who you are, and let others embrace that.
BLOOM: There’s a lot of literature on how having a sibling with a disability affects kids. While some is very positive, other research shows brothers and sisters can find the complexities that disability adds to a family to be challenging.
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: I did find it challenging, yes. I always wanted to help, and when we couldn’t find answers for my sister, I felt frustrated. She didn’t always have the insight to know she was different, she just knew she was being bullied. My parents tried to put these protective parameters around her and she pushed against that. We didn’t understand global developmental delay and what she could or couldn’t do, and she wanted that independence. It was hard for her to understand why she couldn’t do the things we were doing.
BLOOM: There’s a group at York University doing research on the barriers facing immigrant moms of children with developmental disabilities. You mentioned you were an immigrant family.
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: We moved from Trinidad to Toronto when I was nine and my sister was two.
BLOOM: This York group held a workshop here and the diversity in the room was unbelievable. There were a number of support groups that I had never heard of: a group for Muslim moms raising children with disabilities and another for Chinese moms and another for Somali moms. There were also lots of service providers from outside Holland Bloorview. But there were only a handful of our staff there. They were talking about how challenging it is to get the services your child needs when you don’t speak the language or don’t understand how to advocate in this culture.
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: English is our official language. We speak English, so that wasn’t an issue for our family, it was more not knowing what the best treatment was and how to get it.
But there was a situation recently that opened my eyes in this area. When the CBC story on black women came out, we did a series of photoshoots in groups of about 30 to 50 women. We all shared about what we did, and when the others found out I was a neuroscientist, they had so many questions about their own kids and other family members. Some had been diagnosed with autism or had a concussion or something else. They kept saying ‘You have the answers our community needs to hear.’
It made me realize we have to go out into the community, instead of saying ‘come to us.’ Keeping information within the four walls of my workplace is not what my community needs. Information can be received in a different way if the person giving it understands where you’re coming from culturally. So the families say ‘Okay, I get this, they’re speaking my language, in more ways than one.’
BLOOM: Have your thoughts on disability changed since you came here?
Krissy Doyle-Thomas: Definitely. It’s about appreciating people for who they are and not holding anyone up against any one measuring stick. It’s about embracing the person and allowing that person to shine for who they are, without biases, or without them having to fit into a mould. This organization opened my eyes to that. It wasn’t an aha moment. But the culture here has become my culture, and changed my outlook.
“Be wise, my child, and I will be happy; I will have an answer for anyone who criticizes me.”
Proverbs 27:11 GNTD