Mindfulness and autism may not seem to have much to do with each other, but the practice of quieting the mind and becoming present, known as mindfulness, has become more prominent in every level of our society. From kindergarten teachers to Google executives, mindfulness is popular. Mindfulness most commonly refers to the practice of becoming aware of the present moment without judgment. Observing our thoughts and emotions, we better understand ourselves and react more rationally to adversity.
This article will explore mindfulness and autism and some of the latest research on the topic. Incorporating a mindfulness practice into daily living can be helpful for parents of children with autism. Understanding how mindfulness and autism work together can yield lasting long-term effects on children and parenting styles.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness-based practices and programs are based on the Buddhist traditions of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness enthusiasts train to develop an awareness of the present moment purposefully and nonjudgmentally. They accept the now with an open heart and curious attitude. Mindfulness focuses on enhancing attention and understanding current experiences, like the senses, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Additionally, mindfulness practices are taught to cultivate acceptance and compassion toward the self and others.
How Does Mindfulness Affect Me?
You may be wondering, “How does mindfulness affect me?” Well, imagine you were snacking on a box of Oreo cookies. As you eat, you are thinking about what’s due for work or errands you need to run. Eventually, you realize you have eaten the entire box within a few minutes. Mindfulness helps disrupt negative and unhelpful thought patterns that lead to mindless actions.
Our minds are constantly at work, thinking, reflecting, and contemplating everything presented. Being frequently lost in thought or overwhelmed can increase anxiety or depression. Mindfulness is now backed by science to help us become aware of ourselves and our actions. It has also been shown to help emotional regulation and introspection, among many other things. We will discuss more benefits below.
Can Mindfulness and Autism Coexist?
Researchers studied a group of 45 children with autism between the ages of 8 and 19 and their parents to understand the value of mindfulness interventions. Researchers measured parents’ and their children’s progress related to social communication challenges, emotional and behavioral functioning, and mindful awareness. While children did not report significant gains in mindful awareness, their communication and social problems decreased. Additionally, their behavioral and emotional functioning improved.
After the mindfulness research study, parents reported improved behavioral and emotional functioning and mindful awareness. Additionally, they demonstrated enhanced social communication immediately after the intervention. The study concluded that children and their parents benefited from having a mindfulness practice. This indicates a strong relationship between mindfulness and autism.
Can Mindfulness Help with Parental Stress?
Raising a neurodivergent child can be a complex yet rewarding experience, as there are many moving pieces. Parenting a neurodivergent child can be a highly demanding, high-stress role compared to the stress levels experienced by parents of neurotypical children. Increased stress negatively impacts parents’ lives and contributes to mental health issues in the long term.
Interestingly, there is a correlation between high parental stress levels and problem behavior in children with autism; they increase each other. This continues throughout life, especially if the problem behavior continues. Many providers stress early intervention before behaviors become ingrained. Thus, children with autism need therapy to increase their ability to cope with stress and possible co-occurring issues, such as depression.
Children with autism and their parents benefit when adults incorporate mindfulness into their parenting. Studies show an increase in self-compassion and acceptance. According to a recent study, parents also reduced the impact of child behavior issues on their anxiety, stress, and depression.
Being a mindful parent makes you open, nonjudgmental, considerate, and calm when responding to your children. Mindful parenting increases understanding and the ability to teach children how to help themselves. Mindfulness-based programs can also prevent negative interaction patterns between children’s emotions and parental coping skills. A mindfulness-based program for parents of neurodivergent children combined with mindful parenting can be healthy and helpful for everyone. When it comes to raising a neurodivergent child, studies demonstrate that mindfulness and autism parenting complement one another.
How Does Mindfulness Support Children with Autism?
Mindfulness-based programs support children with autism in several ways. First, the child’s underlying neurocognitive deficits may improve. Additionally, their ability to develop a sense of self may be enhanced by mindfulness because the practice requires shifting from widening and narrowing attention. Participants with autism are taught to view internal and external experiences through a broader context of awareness.
Mindfulness training may improve executive functioning because it helps the child practice controlling and focusing their attention. Additionally, they learn to shift attention, reflect on experiences, and notice automatic impulses. This enables thoughtfulness instead of impulsivity.
Mindfulness can also lead to a reduction in issues with social communication and interaction. Mindfulness works to cultivate awareness of the current moment, including interactions with others. Focusing more on social interaction instead of getting distracted by intrusive thoughts or sounds can help children become more aware of their experiences.
Additionally, mindfulness teaches children to practice awareness of their emotions. Mindfulness and autism lead to a better understanding of emotional processes, which can be challenging for children on the spectrum to comprehend. Children may learn to better understand their feelings and the feelings of others through mindfulness. It can also increase awareness of one’s influence over others. Mindfulness-based programs help a child develop empathy and a theory of mind.
For example, instead of being lost in thoughts, mindfulness encourages individuals to consider their feelings and then become aware of the connection between bodily sensations, ideas, and those emotions. Mindfulness teaches children to allow, view, and accept passing events by remaining in the present. Practice reduces their heightened levels of stress, behaviors, and emotional issues.
Five Mindfulness Practices for Your Child with Autism
1. Mindful Morning
As you wake up, spend the first few minutes of each day breathing and becoming aware of the moment. Don’t look at your phone. After a couple of moments of deep breathing, list three things you are grateful for and three things that excite you. Follow this by mindfully eating breakfast or drinking your coffee. As you eat, enjoy every bite. Don’t think; just be. Focus on eating and how the food looks and feels. A routine like this helps you develop an awareness you can later implement to teach your child.
Once you’ve mastered this routine, begin to include your child. Wake them up and have a mindful minute first thing each day. Next, encourage them to savor their experience of eating breakfast, detailing the process. Play a game naming several details! Find ways to make the exploration fun!
2. Mindful Walking
Walk through your neighborhood in complete silence for a few minutes, and then instruct your child to listen to the sounds around them. After a few minutes, ask the child what they heard. Ask them to guide you through their experience.
3. Mindful Minute
Invest in a meditation app that includes guided meditations for children. Set a timer and meditate when you hear the notification. Try to make this as fun and relaxing as possible so your child is reinforced to enjoy the practice.
4. Bell-listening Exercise
Ring a bell either physically or on your phone and ask your child to close their eyes. Encourage them to listen to the vibrations emitted from the bell with all their attention. Instruct the child to raise their hand when the ringing stops. Ask the child to pay attention to other sounds they hear after the bell. This simple exercise is powerful for becoming present and shifting attention to the present moment.
5. Mindful Bedtime
When the child is ready for bed, ask them to lie in bed, close their eyes, and observe the sensations going through their body. Lead them through a scan of their entire body from head to toe. You can find a script online or search for a YouTube video. This is an excellent grounding practice for relaxing after a long day.
Making Mindfulness Personal
Learning how mindfulness and autism work together can bring your parenting to the next level but understanding how your child with autism uniquely connects with mindfulness is essential. Ask questions and get feedback. This is an excellent way to ensure you understand the needs of the neurodivergent and keep the practice as inclusive as possible.
As with many things and autism, treatment must be individualized and personalized. By doing this, we ensure the path genuinely belongs to the person. Mindfulness has many unique gifts to offer the world, just like autism. Mindfulness and autism together can improve life for many!
ABA Centers of America and Mindfulness
ABA Centers of America utilizes ABA therapy, a robust and evidence-based approach to managing the symptoms of autism. Our ABA specialists are well-versed in upcoming treatment trends supported by science, like mindfulness, that make life on the spectrum a little easier. For more information about how we can help your family on their autism journey, call (844) 923-4222 for a free consultation or visit abacenters.com.