Professor and clinical psychologist Jonathan Weiss of York University’s Faculty of Health is the new Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Treatment and Care Research, the federal government announced Monday at York.
The chair, which will receive some $2 million in funding over five years, will study ways to improve the mental health and well-being of people with ASD and their families in Canada.
Jonathan Weiss speaking at the announcement Monday
Weiss and his team will examine why people with ASD are prone to develop mental health problems, evaluate novel treatment strategies to help youth and adults with ASD deal with these issues, as well as other stressful events like bullying. It’s estimated that between 40 and 70 per cent of people with ASDs have at least one co-occurring mental health problem, including anxiety, depression and anger.
York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri congratulated Weiss, saying “York's Faculty of Health is home to some of Canada's leading researchers, who work collaboratively to improve health promotion, disease prevention and health care in the community. I am proud of their commitment to bettering the health of the nation.”
The first $1 million of funding will come from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in partnership with Autism Speaks Canada, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, Health Canada, NeuroDevNet and the Sinneave Family Foundation. York University will match those funds, along with its community partner, the Spectrum of Hope Autism Foundation.
ASDs are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural challenges. The number, kind and severity of symptoms varying from one person to another and includes children and adults.
“The majority of people with autism will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. Good mental health translates into better outcomes for these individuals and for their families, and to a reduced demand on our health and social systems, which benefits all Canadians,” said Weiss, who also holds a New Investigator Fellowship from the Ontario Mental Health Foundation.
His team will work with people with autism, families, service providers, and government to share cutting edge research that will inform mental health care policy and practice across the country.
Weiss is also looking to hear from people with ASD, their families and service providers to help direct the research questions his team will ask. To that end, a new website – Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research – was launched Monday where people can subscribe to learn more about what the program is doing. He will also be putting together an advisory and working group in January to provide input, determine the best way to answer the research questions, inform stakeholders of what is learned and transform that knowledge into improved policy and practice. He hopes that as the program of research grows, the advisory group will attract national representation.
Faculty of Health Dean Harvey Skinner believes Weiss is up for the challenge, saying he was impressed by the breadth of Weiss’ perspectives, as well as how he reaches out and bridges the gap with the community.
Parliamentary Secretary Colin Carrie, who was at the announcement on behalf of Leona Aglukkag, minister of health, said he understands at a personal level the need for this kind of research. He has a son with ASD who is now in university. He added that he was heartened to hear about the research work that will be done by the new chair.
Mike Lake addresses the crowd with his son
“Our Government is committed to helping Canadians maintain and improve their health. That’s why we are supporting research that will use innovative approaches to improve the health of Canadians who live with autism,” Carrie said.
MP for Edmonton Mike Lake brought his son, who has been diagnosed with ASD, to the announcement. He said he also understands the challenges faced by families who have a member with ASD. With a nod to the organizations in the autism community, Lake said they “provide a valuable link to Canadians affected by ASD and their families and they will be critically important to the success of the research program and implementation of the results.”
Robert Thirsk, vice-president, Public, Government and Institute Affairs, CIHR; Dan Goldowitz, scientific director of NeuroDevNet; Dr. Margaret Clarke, senior vice-president of the Sinneave Family Foundation; Jill Farber, vice-chair, Autism Speaks Canada; and Frank Viti, CEO, Autism Speaks Canada, were also at the announcement.
For more information, visit the Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research website.
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