Cultivating mindfulness during a pandemic

TVO.org speaks with Yona Lunsky, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, about how mindfulness can help those with autism — and about the mental-health challenges of COVID-19 
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Apr 24, 2020
The Ontario Brain Institute will be holding a talk on mindfulness in stressful times this coming Saturday. (iStock.com/Sophie Walster)

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If you’ve been feeling anxious of late, you may want to be near a computer this Saturday at 4 p.m., when the Ontario Brain Institute will be holding an online public talk featuring experts from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who teach mindfulness therapy to people with autism and their families. 

The practice of mindfulness, which involves focusing on the present moment, is based on the idea that anxiety and depression arise from either thinking about painful moments in the past or worrying about what might happen in the future. 

In advance of the talk, TVO.org spoke with Yona Lunsky, director of the Azrieli Adult Neurodevelopmental Centre at CAMH and one of the speakers at the upcoming event, about how mindfulness can help those with autism — and the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic may be affecting the mental health of people with autism and their families. 

TVO.org: Why use mindfulness for people with autism and their families? 

Yona Lunsky: I think maybe the question is not so much why you use mindfulness with them, but why not apply mindfulness to everyone, as opposed just to people who don’t have autism or other kinds of disability? We all, I think, can use some help right now. 

TVO.org: Are there challenges involved in teaching this form of therapy? 

Lunsky: Mindfulness is about being here right now and noticing things without judgment. Some people might argue, for example, that neurotypical people are really good at being somewhere else and making all these plans, and maybe someone who is autistic is very much in the present moment. Being aware of what’s going on, noticing a sensory experience and delighting in a particular experience, might be what someone with autism is doing already. Maybe they have something to teach the rest of us about mindfulness. 

TVO.org: What are some of the mindfulness techniques you are teaching people with autism and their families?

Lunsky: It’s like a tasting menu. We offer a little bit of a body-based meditation, a breathing practice, a movement-based practice, a loving-kindness meditation. So they’re not brand-new ideas. They’re the same ideas that are in many of the widely recognized mindfulness programs. And we’re saying, “Give this a try, and see what you think.” 

TVO.org: Are there particular stresses or challenges that people with autism and their families are facing because of social-distancing measures?

Lunsky: Not everyone has the same challenge. One person might have had a really hard time dealing with the experience of going to school every day and all the jarring sensory experiences, or the really cruel kids who were mean to them, or too many classes they had to go to, when they are quite passionate about learning certain things in their own home at their own pace. So for that person, maybe the transition out of school and being more on their own isn’t as stressful as it is for someone else who relies on that routine and the other people they are interacting with over the course of the day. 

In general, we know that kids with autism may really like predictability and certain routines or things they have control over. And this is a time they don’t have control. So that’s difficult. And some people understand better than others why their routine is being disrupted. Some people with autism don’t understand very well what’s happening. Other ones do. 

TVO.org: Has your work with mindfulness and people with autism and their families given you insights into how all of us deal can deal with what is a stressful time? 

Lunsky: This isn’t really about mindfulness, but a lot of people in the disability community right now are saying, “We’ve had to self-isolate for a very long time. Welcome to our world. We’ve been asking for things to be virtual for a hundred years because we find it very stressful to do these in-person things.” Some people who are autistic or their families might say, “This isn’t our first time being alone or having to work with the world not working the way we want it to and having to improvise.” If you live in a community that wasn’t built for you, you’ve got to be pretty resilient to adapt all the time to someone else’s rules. And now we all have to adapt to different rules. 

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