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Autism Awareness Month – Mental Health

It’s National Autism Awareness Month! This week, the ASO is focusing on sharing information and resources related to HEALTH/MENTAL HEALTH with our community members.

The following article was written by Dr. Jonathan A. Weiss, Ph.D., C.Psych and focuses on the need for improved mental health supports for individuals on the spectrum.  Dr. Weiss’s article includes helpful links to articles, information and resources related to mental health.


Mental health care and autism: We can do better

Dr. Jonathan A. Weiss, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Associate Professor, Dept. of Psychology, York University

Chair in ASD Treatment and Care Research


Five years ago, I was fortunate to receive a unique five-year research chair from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with Autism Speaks Canada, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, Health Canada, Kids Brain Health Network (formerly NeuroDevNet) and the Sinneave Family Foundation. When I applied for this award, I indicated that I wanted to focus on understanding and supporting mental health of people with autism, and suggested that we needed to do more in the area. Since then, I’ve collaborated with autistic adults[1], family members, service providers, policy makers, and scientists, to access, generate, and share knowledge about mental health and autism.


There was no question that mental health problems were critical areas to focus on. When I launched an entire blog to autism mental health research, I suggested that there was no way we could ignore this issue. There is a lot that we now know. First, mental health is not just a topic relevant to autism, though people with autism are often at considerably heightened risk compared to peers. For instance, youth with autism are 3 to 4 times more likely to have mental health difficulties compared to the general population, while youth with intellectual disabilities are two to three times more likely. That is, we need to be concerned about the mental health of all children, especially those with developmental disabilities (even if they do not have autism), and even more so for those youth with autism. Second, the story of mental health is not just a story about children. Research that we undertook in collaboration with the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and the Health Care Access Research and Developmental Disabilities (H-CARDD) program revealed that 51% of young adults in Ontario with autism (aged 18-24 years) have at least one psychiatric diagnosis (like an anxiety disorder or depression), compared to 38% of young adults with other developmental disabilities, and to 20% of the general population. Young adults with autism are also more likely to visit the emergency department for psychiatric reasons compared to peers with and without developmental disabilities. Again, while mental health issues are an important concern for all young adults with developmental disabilities, we need to be very aware of when mental health problems emerge for those with autism in particular, with this heightened risk. Third, there are many reasons why rates are so high, from biological considerations, to known psychosocial stressors (like bullying or maltreatment), and systemic and societal problems (like a lack of acceptance).

The fact that rates are so high should call us to action. You would imagine that this would mean that there were specialized evidence-based mental health supports for Canadians with autism. Or at the very least, that they could access general mental health care just like any other Canadian. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. Despite mental health care being a priority for many people on the spectrum in Canada, there is evidence that accessing services is a struggle. There is a myth that having autism means that you can’t benefit from interventions that have been shown to be effective for people without autism. Increasingly, we are learning how we can help children, adolescents, and adults with autism manage their emotional difficulties, especially by understanding how to adapt commonly available cognitive behavioural and mindfulness-based approaches. While not all people on the spectrum may be able to benefit equally from non-specialized approaches, it is frustrating to hear instances where having a diagnosis of autism de facto means a person is ineligible from accessing these kinds of evidence-based supports.


We need to do better. When we consider that autism reflects a considerable degree of neurodiversity, we need to have options in our approach to mental health care. For instance, not everyone can easily access their thoughts, use written materials, or be comfortable participating in group formats for treatment. There is no one approach that will work for all individuals – no one program, no one manual, no one setting. Within research, we need to do better in understanding what works best for whom, and why. We also need to do better at making sure training and supervision exists so that there is the kind of capacity in our mental health care system to best understand how mental health problems present in autism and how to best tailor care to fit with what a person needs. We also need to do better at having policies that ensure that timely and sufficiently intensive care can be provided in a way that helps a person for as long as they need it.


There is also a different type of action that I’ve learned to consider; to move beyond solely focusing on mental health problems. In the past five years, I’ve learned from autistic people and their families about what mental health really means. It is not just about reducing symptoms of anxiety. Or about short term treatments provided by therapists. It is about making sure we have a society that appreciates diversity, that recognizes and acknowledges bias, and that as a collective ensures there are opportunities for people to thrive with, and because of, autism. Let’s use this Autism Awareness Month to ask: what it will take to promote mental health and wellness across the life course, the spectrum, and the country? Let’s work together to conduct meaningful collaborative research to do better.

[1] While person-first language is commonly used in this article, many adults I’ve worked with also prefer ‘identity-first’ language. There is considerable discussion on the topic of whether to use identity-first (i.e. autistic person) or person-first (e.g. person with autism) language. For the purposes of this current post, I do not imply that one form is superior to the other, and I acknowledge the importance of using non-stigmatizing language as a whole.



Some of the ASO’s many health/mental health resources include:

ASDMentalHealth, videos, and research summaries on ASD and related mental health challenges.
The Emotional Toolbox (2012)
The emotional toolbox for individuals with an ASD is designed to increase the number of strategies available to prevent and manage negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and sadness.

The Incredible 5-point Scale (2015)www.5pointscale.comHelps to teach social and emotional concepts to individuals on the autism spectrum. This website includes this book and others, as well as free resources that go along with the book.

Medication Decision Aid use/medication-guide . This guide includes a family decision aid and answers to frequently asked questions—all designed to help you clarify your values and goals and then talk with your healthcare provider about the options, benefits, and possible downsides of medications.

Journal article, “Mental Health Service for Individuals with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder” by Johanna K. Lake, Andrea Perry, and Yona Lunsky:

A toolkit for dental professionals:


This guide was created by an organization in the UK with regard to doctor/hospital visits. This  link to the main page provides some general tips:

The “My Hospital Passport”  can be downloaded and completed and kept with the patient so that everyone on the treatment team understands the patient’s unique needs/considerations:   It does take some time on the part of the family  but in the long run, it can ensure good communication between treatment members and help make a more positive experience for the patient.

A General Practitioner’s guide to Asperger’s Syndrome: GPs-guide-to-adults-with-Asperger-syndrome(1).pdf

Tips for optometrists

Eye doctor visit social story:

A video toolkit for vision exams for individuals with ASD:

Want to ensure resources like these remain freely available and accessible to people across Ontario? Please donate today:

Click here to check out last week’s article and resources related to EDUCATION.  


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