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Leading Autism Spectrum Disorder Research

Photo: Paola Scattolon

Jonathan Weiss

PSYCHOLOGY

THE STATISTICS ON MENTAL HEALTH IN CHILDREN are staggering: fully 20 percent struggle with conditions such as depression and anxiety. And when children have neurodevelopmental disabilities (such as autism, ADHD or cerebral palsy), that number can often rise to 50 percent or higher. However, a study conducted by clinical psychologist Jonathan Weiss has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can make life much brighter - not only for these children, but for their families too.

CBT “is an approach to help participants learn to modify the way they think, and the kind of choices they make when in stressful and challenging situations,” says Weiss, an associate professor of Psychology and York Research Chair in Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disability. Yet, while it’s a practical and widely respected intervention, CBT is often inaccessible to children with brain-based disabilities.

One reason for this, says Weiss, is that therapists often take for granted that anxiety and depression are natural to people with conditions such as autism. “We need to recognize that a person with autism doesn’t have to struggle with mental health issues. Then, we have to build the capacity to do something about it.”

We need to recognize that a person with autism doesn’t have to struggle with mental health issues. Then, we have to build the capacity to do something about it.

In Weiss’s initial study, children with autism attended ten one-hour-long CBT sessions provided by graduate student and postdoctoral fellow clinicians at York. A fascinating by-product was how this treatment positively affected the parents who accompanied them. “Even though the intervention was designed for children,” Weiss says, “we saw indirect benefits for parents. When the family context is healthy, children are more
likely to grow up resilient.”

Currently, Weiss is conducting a similar five-year study involving children with other neurodevelopmental disabilities; he is optimistic that studies such as these will lead to general improvement in societal mental health. “When we focus on children,” he says, “there’s a really strong opportunity to enact preventative measures, before serious problems arise.”