Ask the Expert: Practicing Mindfulness with Children on the Spectrum
Q: How can mindfulness benefit children with autism?
A: Children are more susceptible to their environment through their senses, due to lack of practicing healthy coping skills to help self-regulate and manage their environment. Mindfulness can help to alleviate some of those stressors. Children diagnosed with autism are very sensitive to energy and are attuned to energy that others may not even be aware existed. This sensitivity can make coping with the excessive stimuli/energy of things such as: technology, chemicals/additives in food, fluorescent lighting, ambient noise, perfume/laundry detergent/deodorant, etc., which can be over-stimulating. This can contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. When teaching a child mindfulness practices, we are teaching them how to reduce stress, feel more connected, and how to relax, in order to navigate this intense world in which they perceive.
An example of a mindfulness practice that can be incredibly beneficial to individuals with autism is meditation. However, prior to being able to teach meditative practice, the basic skill that needs to be taught (as ultimately any meditative practice focuses on this) is how to breathe deeply. Some various techniques in teaching deep breathing can include using items such as: bubbles, pinwheels, straws and pom-poms to blow, placing a stuffed animal on their stomach to watch it move up and down, etc. At our center, we have also utilized the phrase (with visual supports) “smell, blow”. We have our students “smell” (flower, lotion, etc.) and “blow” (bubbles, candle, etc.). This assists in slowing down the breath. The use of the breath in a tactile, mindful way, is an excellent way to help these young people have a focus.
Movement is also incredibly important and beneficial to children diagnosed with autism, especially in regards to self-regulation. One can become emotionally balanced through flexibility and a good example of this is through practice of yoga. Practicing yoga not only exercises ones’ physical body, but also assists in processing emotions and thoughts.
Yoga has been suggested to be utilized, especially among individuals with attention issues, that may not be able to sit still to meditate. Studies demonstrated that yoga helped to settle their energy, thereby helping them to be able to meditate more peacefully following this practice. For some children with additional support needs, issues with balance, movement, and sensory processing has built up a state of chronic stress. Yoga and meditation helps to reduce this. Working with the body and helping them to relax is the best way to focus the breath in to the body and help it de-stress through relaxation. When children are relaxed, children are ready to learn.
Mindfulness is all about asking children to pay attention to how they feel, what they are feeling, and how their body feels in the moment. Using their five senses (what you see, smell, taste, touch, and hear) assists in helping to bring them into the “here and now”, the present moment. One of the beautiful things about mindfulness practice is that you can adapt and modify it to be as individualized as each individual child. However, it is important to note that in order to teach mindfulness practice, you must be able to teach from your own practice, and through repetition.
If you want to learn more about practicing mindfulness, here are some recommended websites, books and videos:
-Stacy Blecher and Natalie Copleand
Stacy Blecher, MA, ATR, CMP, is an Art Therapist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She received her Master of Art Therapy from Ursuline College and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism for the past 13 years.
Natalie Copeland, ASISC, is a Behavior Support Specialist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She is currently completing her Master of Science in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve University and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism and their families for the past 12 years.
Stacy and Natalie jointly presented a workshop titled, “Train Your Brain: Keep Calm and Practice Mindfulness” at Milestones 15th Annual Conference this past June.