Autism can include happiness, belonging and positive health

Jonathan Weiss, PhD., is an associate professor and chair in Autism Spectrum, Disorders Treatment and Care Research at York University. As a summer scholar for the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, he looks forward to collaborating with researchers in his field, teaching graduate students, and sharing his learning through public outreach.

Jonathan A. Weiss, Associate Professor and Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research at York University. | Photo courtesy of Jonathan Weiss

My research focuses on promoting mental health in people with autism across their life course,” says Weiss. “I’m looking at different kinds of intervention or systems that can best enable good mental health for an individual and their families.”

Weiss’ upcoming presentation focuses on three pillars of research: intervention for the individual, supporting families, and understanding systems of care.

On July 12, Weiss will present his research at the recently opened Pacific Autism Family Network (PAFN) centre, a 60,000 sq. ft. facility that offers one-stop-shop support services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families across the province.

Sergio Cocchia, chair of PAFN, refers to the Centre as part of a hub and spoke model, with two spokes in Prince George and Kelowna scheduled for completion in the fall.

“We’re very excited to have Dr. Weiss share his research…,” says Cocchia. “He’s done some amazing work for his country as the autism chair at York University, and I look forward to hearing him speak.”

Defining autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders include a range of social communication and behaviour disorders that affect the lives of individuals and their families, says Weiss. Without proper treatment, children often develop mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and uncontrollable aggression.

“Autism is a label to describe a set of behavioural difficulties,” he adds. “What causes one person’s autism could be very different from another person.”

A study published in 2016 by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention on eight-year-olds in the United States suggests that 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, says Weiss. However, there are always a number of variables to consider when looking at the data.

“In Canada, the best available number is still 1 in 94 children,” says Weiss. “It could be higher. It really depends on where people are looking and how they are characterizing autism.”

The causes of ASD are still unknown. Weiss points out that while he doesn’t study the causes of autism as part of his research, he recognizes that there are many different types of autism that involve genetics, biological factors, and potential environmental conditions too.

“The disorder is a challenge for families and individuals. The costs aren’t covered in our healthcare, so it’s a devastating neurological social condition that affects our children profoundly, and their families,” says Cocchia.

Weiss explains that a cure for autism may never be discovered, but treating the various disorders through evidence-based interventions can benefit youth with autism by addressing the mental health issues that emerge during their life.

He also believe that this type of research is important for developing coping mechanisms that encourage happiness and well-being in people struggling with ASD.

“Everybody, regardless of ability or disability, deserves the opportunity to thrive,” says Weiss. “We all deserve to experience happiness, belonging and positive health.”

Looking ahead

After five years of research and capacity building, the grant supporting Weiss’ role as chair ends in the fall. He remains an associate professor at York University, but he will continue research on cognitive behaviour therapy to improve emotional regulation in children with mental health issues, including autism. Weiss also looks forward to applying his evidence-based intervention models to real world scenarios in an effort to build capacity in communities across the country.

“Autism can be a very positive thing,” says Weiss. “…It’s not something that needs to be cured, but we do need to make sure…that any person at risk of being marginalized has the right kind of supports in place so they feel included, and they can thrive in their community.”

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