York University to lead Autism Mental Health Promotion Project

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York University will lead a project to develop national resources and capacities that boost support for those living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and provide Canadians with enhanced knowledge and skills to maintain good mental health.

Jonathan Weiss

The Autism Mental Health Promotion (AMHP) Project, a two-step approach to mental health promotion, is a collaboration between a York University professor, Dr. Jonathan Weiss, along with Dr. Yona Lunsky at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) and Dr. Kenneth Fung at the University Health Network (UHN). The Government of Canada recently announced the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) Autism Spectrum Disorder Strategic Fund commitment of $599,300 to the project.

The national project includes the development of mental health literacy materials through online and print resources for older adolescents and adults living with ASD, the families of people with ASD and service providers. The project will also implement evidence-based online and in-person interventions to improve the ability of individuals with ASD, and their family members, to cope with stressors associated with ASD. An online mindfulness intervention will be accessible nationally through multiple partner hosting websites.

“This commitment from the PHAC ASD Strategic Fund will enable York University, the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, and the University Health Network’s Centre for Mental Health to embark upon an important mental health initiative, the Autism Mental Health Promotion Project,” said Weiss, who is co-principal investigator on the project with Fung and Lunsky. “Working together with autistic adults, families and service providers, we will develop and share mental health literacy tools, expand the reach of virtual mindfulness-based training, and build the community capacity to deliver acceptance and commitment training across Canada.”

This project has three components.

The first component, led by Weiss, is focused on the development of print and video mental health literacy resources for autistic adults and families, and service providers. Mental health literacy is described as the knowledge that benefits mental health, including how to prevent mental health problems, the kinds of problems that can develop, effective self-help strategies for mild-to-moderate problems and explanations of how to help others. Weiss’s group will be working together with autistic advisers, family advisers and service provider advisers from across the country to pull together these informational resources, inform how people can stay mentally healthy and find care when they need it.

The second component, led by Lunsky at CAMH, uses virtual technology to bring people together to learn a new skill. CAMH will work with communities across Canada to offer online mindfulness-based skills groups, co-designed by clinicians, autistic adults and their families, that teach participants skills to enhance healthy awareness of their experiences and offer tools to accept and care for themselves and others during stressful situations. Individuals can log into an online platform together, see and hear each other, and be guided by a team of experts in mindfulness, with the support of autistic adult and/or family advisers over six weeks, to learn a set of mindfulness skills.

The third component, led by Fung at UHN, is building the capacity of the autism community across the country to provide in-person acceptance and commitment training (ACT) workshops for family carers of autistic people. These workshops are co-facilitated by clinicians and family members, with an aim to provide support, promote well-being and increase resilience and psychological flexibility of the caregivers. Clinicians and family member facilitators from different parts of the country will come to Toronto to receive training in ACT, and then be supported virtually by AMHP to design ACT workshops in their home communities.

This project would not be possible, said Weiss, without an extensive network of community support from autistic adults, family carers, service providers, and organizations aiming to help by providing input into resource development and expanding the reach of the project to different parts of the country. This enables the delivery of the interventions in their communities and the sharing of what is learned from these mental health efforts.