Published on March 29th, 2018 | from CAMH

On World Autism Awareness Day, four ways to move toward mental health

By Dr. Yona Lunsky, Director of the Azrieli Centre for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Mental Health at CAMH

My colleague Daniel Share-Strom, motivational speaker and Autism advocate, suggested in a recent Ted Talks that we need to move beyond autism awareness and into autism acceptance. This year, for World Autism Awareness Day – April 2, 2018 – I echo his words. 

Indeed, steps have been made in this direction. On World Autism Awareness Day last year, a new character with autism was welcomed onto Sesame Street. We have since seen characters with autism on prime time television, CBC, Netflix, in films and live theatre. An actor with autism played the lead role in a production of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the U.S., and the movie Keep the Change includes a number of actors with autism.

Change is happening here at CAMH, too. We are in our second year of expanded services to adults on the spectrum, including those seeking a diagnosis for the first time. CAMH research on autism has garnered national and international media attention.

And then, in February, we announced the creation of the Azrieli Centre for Adult Neurodevelopmental Disabilities and Mental Health, the first Canadian centre of its kind. The centre was created through a generous donation from the Azrieli Foundation.

Equally important to what we study here is how we do research. For example, we are learning from women on the spectrum what to ask and now how to interpret what we are learning about autism and health care from other autistic women. Parents of children with autism have been co-designing and delivering interventions for other parents with us. And we just finished our first virtual mindfulness group for parents and their children, with a mother-son advisor team.

We are learning from our colleagues here and around the world how we can continue to move this field forward.

Indeed, we have come far. We are changing our language, broadening our understanding of what autism is and how autism presents, and featuring new voices in the public arena to help us in our gradual journey toward acceptance. But we have a long way to go. This year on World Autism Awareness Day, I offer four general directions.

First, our research priorities need to be shared priorities, with those with autism and their families at the helm. Advocates in Canada and abroad have prioritized mental health; it’s time that we as a research community listen. This needs to be reflected in our broader mental health research agenda, as well as our autism specific efforts.

Second, mental health supports are a right for everyone on the autism spectrum. As clinicians, we need to get equipped to respond to neurodiverse mental health presentations across the lifespan. Some training exists and the rest we can develop. Importantly, we must work together with the “experts by experience” to develop that training, as we have learned from similar efforts in other countries.

Third, the mental health interventions we design moving forward need to be done in collaboration with the people who will benefit from them. We must build on strengths and celebrate neurodiversity, and reduce psychological distress at the same time.

And finally, we need to tackle the broader social issues in our efforts to address mental health issues. No one should feel anxious or depressed because they cannot access services and supports, find work or make meaningful community contributions, or because they are lonely and isolated, bullied or abused. Supportive and enabling environments are interventions in themselves, which we all need to advocate for, to truly improve mental health.

There are multiple perspectives on what needs to happen next, and sometimes these perspectives conflict. Autism acceptance is also about valuing diverse viewpoints. This year, I hope we can achieve better mental health for those with autism and their families by working together and listening to one another – to support those with autism and their families to change these realities.

Header image: Daniel Share-Strom, Autism Advocate (left) and Dr. Lunsky at the launch event for the new Azrieli Centre 

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