Local counsellor uses mindfulness, therapeutic yoga to help autistic children and their parents

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      For Joelle Lazar, mindfulness is an important tool in every aspect of daily life. As a registered clinical counsellor, she teaches clients how to utilize the practice to help manage things like stress and anxiety. As a yoga teacher, she is constantly mindful of her speech and movement. But as a parent, Lazar uses mindfulness to foster a more understanding relationship with her seven-year-old autistic son.

      Now, Lazar is combining the benefits of mindfulness with therapeutic yoga to help other parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by hosting a two-tiered focus group that will introduce parents and children to these practices.

      While using a proprietary treatment called relationship development intervention (RDI) with her son, she first came up with the idea of studying the effectiveness of mindfulness when used by parents of children with ASD.

      “Through RDI, I realized, ‘Wow, I need to be so mindful with my son,’ ” Lazar said in an interview with the Straight at a Mount Pleasant coffee shop. “Communication with children with autism is difficult. Kids on the spectrum can have very repetitive and automatic behaviors, and so as parents we have a tendency to be automatic with them.

      “With RDI, I needed to not be automatic—I needed to be aware.”

      Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice that gained popularity in the early 1990s due in large part to the work of mental health experts like Dr. Dan Siegel and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Lazar explains it as the act of “being present, paying attention, being in the moment, and letting go of judgment”.

      As an individual who has practised yoga and meditation for most of her life, she was already well aware of being mindful. (Lazar is a third-generation yogi and says she “grew up watching [her] family stand on their heads”.) One of her hopes is that by sharing the practice of mindfulness with other parents, they will be able to enhance the success rate of behavioural therapies with their children, too.

      Characterized by a challenged ability to communicate, hindered social interaction, and repetitive or restricted behaviors, autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder, affects one in 68 children, according to the Autism Society of B.C. As a spectrum disorder, its symptoms and level of intensity can manifest very differently from person to person.

      “It’s been demonstrated in research that parents who have children with special needs or are on the spectrum have way more stress, anxiety, depression, and mental-health issues than parents with children that aren’t on the spectrum,” she says, citing a 2013 study by psychology researchers from the University of Adelaide that suggests that relationships between child problem behaviors and parenting stress are reciprocal.

      “One of the reasons I feel so passionate about supporting this population is because when you have a child that’s different, the system isn’t perfect with serving their needs, and it puts pressure on the parent to find the right help. There’s this expert gaze that parents are under, and it can be very stressful,” Lazar notes.

      Joelle Lazar is a counsellor and yoga therapist at Centrepoint Psychotherapy.
      Vimeo/Joelle Lazar

      In her focus group, Lazar takes a holistic approach to sharing the practices of mindfulness and yoga with families by dividing them into two groups: one for children and one for parents.

      Lazar says her sense is that parents need to be aware of automatic listening—“like saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, but not really being present”—while also paying close attention to how they are being affected by their own emotions. They may also need to work on adopting a non-judgmental acceptance of themselves and their children.

      Being mindful, Lazar says, helps parents let go of unrealistic expectations, and encourages them to challenge their children in a healthy, balanced way. Lazar works with parents to create a mindfulness practice that will support them in navigating diagnoses and overcoming problematic behaviour.

      With the children on the spectrum, Lazar focuses on social-emotional learning through yoga by employing a series of fluid and grounding movements, which help with the children’s spatial- and self-awareness.

      “For kids on the spectrum, it’s hard to regulate emotions and to accurately interpret others’ social cues,” she explains. “There are certain things that help them feel more valued, like visual aids, knowing what’s next, and having a comfortable routine they can trust, but the bigger picture of it is being able to feel truly relaxed, truly at home, and truly feel in harmony.

      “My goal is to create a program where they can find that peace within themselves.”

      Beyond helping the group of families affected by ASD, Lazar said that her initiative is largely about community-building. She’s found it difficult to find the right place to meet with parents of other autistic children to share in their challenges and difficulties, and hopefully, her work will create a supportive setting for parents.

      So far, Lazar has held a few preliminary meetings, and feedback from parents has been positive.

      “Most were really grateful and appreciative to have the opportunity to meet with parents with similar challenges in their lives, because sometimes as a parent of a child with developmental challenges, you can end up feeling very alone,” Lazar says. “When it came to bringing mindfulness to the physical body, a lot of parents were surprised by how much tension or pain they were carrying in their bodies.”

      Currently, Lazar is still searching for an appropriate venue to hold the groups. She’s applied to run the children’s group, Therapeutic Yoga/Social Emotional Learning for Kids with Developmental Needs/Autism, at Trout Lake Community Centre, and is hoping to schedule it for sometime this summer.

      If you are interested in finding out more about the focus group for parents, the children’s camp, or Lazar’s research, visit centrepointpsychotherapy.com/programs.