Mindfulness and Autism

By Didi Dunin, CEI intern

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often engage in maladaptive behaviors such as self-stimulation, aggression, and self-harm as ways to cope with social difficulties and atypical sensory processing.

Mindfulness training can help children with ASD cultivate more meaningful social connections by increasing empathy and compassion, develop a more attuned mind-body awareness, and learn more adaptive coping mechanisms for stress and depression.

Empathy and Compassion

One of the primary symptoms of ASD is social dysfunction.

For example, children with ASD tend to have:

  • Trouble making eye-contact
  • Difficulty understanding humor and sarcasm
  • Facial expressions and gestures that do not match what is being said
  • An inability to read non-verbal communication cues
  • A misunderstanding of their own and others’ emotions
  • Difficulty making friends and getting along with others

Research has shown that mindfulness practices can have very real effects on brain waves involving empathetic reasoning and social cognition, making it a highly effective treatment for the social symptoms prevalent in ASD.  

For example, a mindfulness program called cognitive-based compassion training (CBCT) increased empathic accuracy, evidenced by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), and increased activation in brain areas known to be associated with empathy compared to controls (Mascaro, Rilling, Negi, & Raison, 2012).

Another empathy-focused mindfulness training is Loving-Kindness-Based Meditation. The first stage involves disengagement from usual preoccupation with self‐defeating behaviors and reactions; the second stage involves a focused engagement with a universal human capacity for altruistic experience, love, and compassion (Kristeller & Johnson, 2005).

When using mindfulness practices such as those described above, children with ASD develop a sense of compassion for the self and an increased confidence in their ability to understand and communicate with others. They also learn to reduce their detrimental self-focus of attention, which, in turn, promotes social skills and more meaningful social connections. 

Sensory Processing

Another core symptom of ASD is atypical sensory processing. Many children with ASD have a hypersensitivity to certain stimuli. This is why you might see an autistic child cover their ears at the sound of a vacuum or cover their eyes in a brightly lit department store. Mindfulness training can help reduce these sensations by bringing awareness to other stimuli that are not as overwhelming, such as the feeling or sound of one’s breath. Other times, hypersensitivity can also lead children with ASD to obsessively seek out particular sensations that feel pleasurable or comforting.  

Some children with ASD also have a hyposensitivity to particular sensations. This is why you might think an autistic child is “ignoring” you, when in reality they might be hyposensitive to voice tones.

To enhance the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices, materials such as weighted blankets, massage tools, stress balls, and fidget toys can be used alongside meditation, which can help to normalize the child’s response to stimuli and help them develop a more attuned mind-body awareness and integration.

It is important to keep in mind that every child with ASD has their own unique response to sensations, so supplementary materials should be tailored to meet the needs of the individual child.

Emotion Regulation

Children with ASD rely on more maladaptive emotion regulation strategies to cope with negative affect than typically developing children (Samson, Wells, Phillips, Hardan, & Gross, 2014).

These include:

  • Temper tantrums  
  • Insistence on sameness  
  • Obsessive thinking and rumination
  • Self-stimulatory repetitive behaviors (“stimming”)
  • Aggressive behaviors  
  • Self-injurious behaviors

Mindfulness training helps children with ASD become aware of their emotions, accept them without judgment, and realize that their negative feelings will pass. This insight helps them develop a more adaptive and non-reactive mindset and learn more adaptive emotion regulation strategies.

For example, results from Singh et al. (2011) showed that adolescents with autism can learn, and effectively use, a mindfulness-based procedure to self-manage their physical aggression. Specifically, Meditation on the Soles of the Feet, which requires the rapid shifting of attention from the aggression-triggering event to the soles of the feet, a neutral place on the body, led to a decrease in the number of acts of aggression over several years.

When the mind is calm, the muscles also relax, and the urge for aggression and emotional reaction decreases.

Mindfulness should be taught to children with ASD as early as possible to help them develop life-long skills to effectively manage the disorder and lead a more socially connected and meaningful life.  While there is no cure for ASD, mindfulness training can improve communication, socializing, self-regulation, self-care, and overall well-being.

References

Kristeller, J. L., & Johnson, T. (2005). Cultivating Loving Kindness: A two-stage model of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and altruism. Zygon?, 40(2), 391-408.

Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. L. (2012). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48-55.

Samson, A. C., Wells, W. M., Phillips, J. M., Hardan, A. Y., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Emotion regulation in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from parent interviews and children’s daily diaries. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56(8), 903-913.

Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Manikam, R., Winton, A. S., Singh, A. N., Singh, J., & Singh, A. D. (2011). A mindfulness-based strategy for self-management of aggressive behavior in adolescents with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(3), 1153-1158.

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