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.
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Q: What is mindfulness and why is it so important?
A: Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, and is used as a therapeutic technique. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, has defined mindfulness as “paying attention to our lives, moment by moment, on purpose, in a certain way, and without judgment.”
In other words, mindfulness is staying focused on being in the now, the moment you are currently in, and not perseverating over the past (it’s finished) or the anticipation of the future (it has not occurred yet). It is the process of practicing paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, sensations, environment/atmosphere around you and learning to be significantly present.
Research has shown many benefits to engaging in mindfulness practices that promote awareness. Some of these benefits include: focus, stress reduction, rumination/perseverative decrease, improved working memory, less emotionally reactive, increase cognitive flexibility, more satisfaction in relationships, etc. In addition to cognitive and emotional benefits, there are also many physiological and physical benefits as a result of mindfulness based practices that can include: decrease in tension, increase in endurance/energy levels, treating heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, pain decrease, balance, posture and strengthen immune, autonomic, nervous and endocrine systems.
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