Friday, April 25, 2014

Benefits of Meditation for Autism

from Spectrum Meditations

“Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation may lead to a variety of benefits for the health and wellness of the general population. It can help people learn to quiet their minds and focus their attention by observing their thoughts and feelings without judgment. The focus is on being in the present moment. Through meditation, we may be able to change how we deal with the thoughts and emotions we experience in our daily lives.

Medication may produce many types of benefits, both physiological and psychological. Regular meditation has been associated with increased energy, reduced muscle tension, reduced blood pressure, increased immune function, improved sleep, and decreased pain and perception of pain.

One of the benefits most relevant to people with autism relates to stress and processing of negative emotions. As Positively Autism reported last month, at least 30% of people with autism may also have an anxiety disorder, according to research estimates. Some research also indicates that individuals who are "higher-functioning" on the autism spectrum may experience a higher rate of anxiety disorders. Anxiety can range from mild to severe, but it can be a problem for many of our children and students with autism. Meditation is one option that can be explored as a stress and anxiety reduction strategy.*

Among adults, meditation has been associated with producing a relaxing response and relaxation of muscles. It may also improve mental and emotional health through the increase of stress management skills and other self-regulatory behaviors. During meditation, brain activity may shift to areas of the brain that promote the decrease of stress, anxiety, worry, and mild depressive feelings.

Also of interest for people with autism is that meditation has been associated with increases in areas that they often struggle with, such as concentration, focus, self-regulation of behavior, resilience, and adaptability. Here are some examples:

Self-Regulation: self-management is a skill taught to many students with autism. It involves learning to observe your own behaviors and make some kind of notes, tallies, or other recording system to track your own progress with certain behaviors (such as being on task in class or completing chores). Students may also give themselves rewards (agreed upon by teacher and student or parent and child) for completing these behaviors.  There are many ways to teach self-management skills, but the first step in the process is becoming aware of your own behaviors and being taught exactly what behaviors you need to “watch for” in yourself. According to Autism Key, meditation may play a role in this process because it promotes self-awareness, which is the first step to self-regulation. For more about self-management, please read these two issues of Positively Autism's newsletter: May 2011 and June 2011.

Similarly, the process of self-awareness can also help with reducing problem behavior. If students can learn to monitor their own physical and mental states, they may be able to calm themselves before frustration or other negative emotions lead to a behavioral “meltdown.” One strategy that works well with teaching this concept is the Incredible 5 Point Scale. In this strategy, you will create a scale with a range of emotions (such as 1 is happy/relaxed and 5 is losing control). For each step on the scale, you can fill in what this emotional state looks and feels like, and appropriate choices the student can do while in each state to either calm down or remain calm). Click here for an example. Again, self-awareness is key to this process, and learning meditation may help students become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and physical states. This clearly facilitates the ability to help self-regulate emotions.

Aggression: a couple of recent research studies have evaluated the impact of a mindfulness-based meditation strategy on aggressive behavior of adolescents with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The program used in the studies was called “Meditation on the Soles of the Feet,” which focuses on shifting your focus of attention from whatever triggered your anger to a more neutral object to think about, in this case, the soles of your feet. You can learn more training steps to this process here. The video below also gives a good overview, but if you want to teach this process, use the training steps linked above.

Results of these two studies, conducted with a total of six adolescents with autism or Asperger’s, indicated that episodes of aggression did decrease across time when the meditation strategy was used. The change in aggressive behavior appeared to be gradual, so this was not an immediate fix, but it may show benefits over time. These were single-subject studies, meaning that the rates of aggression before and during the use of the meditation strategy were compared individually for each participant. That is, each person’s rates of aggression while using meditation were compared only to their own rates of aggression before using the meditation. While I would say that more research is clearly needed before reaching any definite conclusions, I think this may be a potentially promising intervention strategy that should be investigated further.

Anxiety: we’ve already discussed some benefits of meditation for relief of stress and anxiety. To add some research support specifically about autism, let’s look at a 2013 study about this topic. In this study, 42 adults with autism were randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a control group. The experimental group participated in a 9 week mindfulness-based therapy program. You can read more detail about the program in this article. In order to measure the effect of the program, participants were given questionnaires about their levels of anxiety, depression, recurrent negative thoughts, and general affect. The authors of this study reported that the experimental group showed a reduction in anxiety, depression, and recurrent negative thoughts, as well as an increase in positive affect.

To Sum It Up…

While there appear to me be many benefits of meditation for people with autism, more research is needed to confirm these benefits from a scientific standpoint. However, learning stress reduction and relaxation techniques is clearly beneficial to all of us, including people with autism. Meditation is a great tool for relaxation, stress relief, and self-reflection. To learn more about meditation, please read these article from Spectrum Meditations:

What is Meditation?

Types of Meditation

*Before beginning a meditation program, or any program to reduce anxiety, please consult with your family doctor and any applicable psychology professionals.


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