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Mindfulness and ASD

Over the last couple of years, mindfulness, in particular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has been receiving more attention in the media. Mindfulness is often discussed as a new tool for managing life’s stressors and problems and, perhaps, a better way of approaching our daily lives. Of course, mindfulness is really nothing new with its origin in Eastern-based meditation practices. However, more recently with autism spectrum disorders on the rise, the use of MBSR techniques is also beginning to receive more attention as an effective intervention for caregivers of and for people with autism spectrum disorders.

Different Ways to Cope with Stress

So what is mindfulness anyway? It is important to understand that mindfulness is not about trying to achieve a state of happiness all the time. But, as Jon Kabat-Zin, an expert in mindfulness-based stress reduction, describes, mindfulness is “…moment to moment awareness, the complete ‘owning of each moment’ of your experience, good, bad or ugly.” The practice includes mindful awareness, which is an open-minded, open-hearted and non-judging awareness of the present moment, as well as types of sitting and walking meditation, body scans, Qigong (involving posture, breathing techniques, and mental focus), mindful eating and loving kindness concepts. It also incorporates specific attitudes of mindfulness like purposefully paying attention, non-judging, patience, using a beginner’s mind, trust, loving kindness, non-striving, acceptance of reality and letting go. Mindfulness is not teaching us ways to eliminate problems, but instead, different ways to think about and manage the ongoing stress and problems that arise. Research is showing that we can change our attitude, and thereby our relationship to our circumstances, in ways that can make a difference in our health and well-being.1

Learning to Quiet the Mind

This practice is emerging as a growing trend in working with children, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders. Learning to quiet the mind through meditation and breathing techniques and to listen to our bodies seems to help regulate emotions. By learning to pay attention in the present moment, people are able to reduce rumination. These techniques can be particularly effective in dealing with the anxiety and depression that can often accompany autism spectrum disorders. Research shows that depression and anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric concern in autism spectrum disorders. Mindfulness-based therapy has been found effective in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms.2 In addition, for some, learning to accept reality and to let go can have a profound effect on dealing better with everyday concerns. Tara Brach writes, “Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is” 3 and emphasizes how mindfulness can help in this process. Exercises in paying attention, self-soothing, noticing thoughts and breath awareness can be taught to people who need varying levels of support.

Helping Parents and Caregivers

Parents and caregivers of people with autism spectrum disorders can also benefit from these MBSR techniques. While all parents endure stress, we have learned that parents of children with developmental disabilities, like autism, are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Using MBSR techniques can help. “Previous studies indicate that the majority of people who complete [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs] report a greater ability to cope more effectively with both short- and long-term stressful situations, critical skills for parents of children with DD.” 4

One parent who practiced in a mindfulness group taught at YAI stated, the practice of mindfulness in her daily life gave her “a feeling of wellbeing and peace that [she] had never experienced in her past.” And another parent expressed, [mindfulness] has been “a transformative experience to awaken a centered and conscious life where a treadmill of challenges is turned into wisdom and opportunities.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practicing mindfulness in our daily life is really the only way to cultivate the practice. However, by actively practicing people can acquire techniques that can help them gain more control and be a positive force on their wellbeing.

 

Laura M. Pascrell is Manager of Clinical Services with the YAI Autism Center. For more information about YAI services for children and adults with autism and their parents or caregivers, please call 212-273-6182.

References

  1. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Volume 34, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 246–253
  2. Mindfulness-based therapy in adults with an autism spectrum disorder: A randomized controlled trial
  3. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
  4. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Parents of Young Children with Developmental Delays: Implications for Parental Mental Health and Child Behavior Problems Cameron L. Neece Department of Psychology, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA, USA Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities 2014, 27, 174–186

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