Mindfulness: How It Can Help Your Stressed Child With ASD
Many children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) suffer from anxiety and stress. Research suggests nearly 55% of all children with ASD are actually living with a comorbid anxiety disorder (De Bruin et al, 2006). One intervention that has garnered a lot of evidence to support its use in helping individuals with anxiety is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT has six important processes, one of which is “contact with the present moment” or as some might call “mindfulness.” Mindfulness involves being able to notice your thoughts and feelings and making room for them without judging them or yourself for having them. This article is all about infusing mindfulness into your daily routine with the hope that if you do, you will see improved quality of life.
I have been using the principles of ACT, which includes mindfulness exercises, in my own personal life, with my students I teach at the university, as well as with the children and teenagers with autism in my clinical practice. I also encourage the parents of the children I work with to use it. Mindfulness included in an intervention that is based on ACT has some pretty compelling effects on quality of life.
It has been shown to have an effect on challenging behavior in individuals with ASD (Singh, 2003), has helped reduced stress in parents of children with ASD, and has reduced test anxiety in my college students. These are just a few of the benefits of using an intervention that is based on the core processes of ACT, and includes mindfulness. Feel free to reach out for a more comprehensive list of the benefits of ACT with individuals with ASD if you would like more detailed information on the research to back it up or for any questions on ACT itself.
Conceptually, the scientific principles of ACT may be a bit complex, but the use of it doesn’t have to be. In fact, one of the really cool things about ACT is it is relatively easy to implement. This is especially true when talking about the mindfulness component and it doesn’t have to take up all of your time. It can have a real impact with only minutes a day. One of the teenagers with ASD that I work with does it for three minutes every day and it has had an effect on her ability to cope with novel situations like, for example, when she had to get her wisdom teeth removed recently.
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I also saw the effects of brief exercises when I implemented it with my college students, simply by including a 10 minute exercise every week in the middle of my lecture I was able to see an impact on test anxiety within 10 weeks! You can read more about the research we did with college students here.
Here is how to get started:
1. Decide which exercises to do and how long you will do it
The key is to start with a short exercise and gradually build on it. For example, one of the teenagers that I work with will always search for the shortest exercise, which is typically three minutes in length. Recently he was able to start adding two minutes to his session. The key is to not make it seem like this huge deal that is going to take up a lot of your time. Otherwise, you might see some challenging behavior around doing it, and less buy-in. Start small, as you would with any new skill and gradually build on it.
There are all kinds of resources on the internet that provide options for guided mindfulness exercises. I work with families that prefer to start with something like the “headspace” app which has free exercises to start with and options to buy more. Other clients prefer the “calm” app. Alternatively, you can always do an online search for guided mindfulness exercises and choose from the ones that are presented. Here is a list of some of the ones that I like to use:
2. Decide where you are going to do it
It is a good idea to find a space that you will always use to work on your exercises. Ultimately, you will hopefully be able to do it anywhere when you need to, but for your daily practice, having a space to go to is ideal. I like to do it in my living room with my husband every morning before we have our coffee. I work with one teenager who does it in his desk chair in front of his computer. It all depends on what works for you and your child with ASD.
3. Commit to doing it at the same time
It will be much easier to infuse this exercise into your daily routine if you know when it is going to happen every day. As mentioned before, I do it with my husband every morning before our little ones get out of bed. One of the teenagers that I work with will do it every morning before he takes the bus to school. This is in the hopes that it will help him start his day on the right foot. When I implemented it with my college students, it was just before they went on the break in the middle of a three-hour lecture. Predictability is key and limiting the number of distractions at the time will also make it more effective.
These are just some of the reasons and ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day. If you decide to go ahead and try implementing it into your daily routine or if you already are, I would love to hear your thoughts on how it works for you!
De Bruin, E. I., Verheij, F., Wiegman, T., & Ferdinand, R. F. (2006). Differences in finger length
ratio between males with autism, pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified, ADHD, and anxiety disorders. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 48(12), 962-965.
Hayes, S. C., & Wilson, K. G. (2003). Mindfulness: Method and process. Clinical Psychology:
Science and Practice, 10(2), 161-165.
Singh, N. N., Wahler, R. G., Adkins, A. D., Myers, R. E., & Mindfulness Research Group.
(2003). Soles of the feet: A mindfulness-based self-control intervention for aggression by an individual with mild mental retardation and mental illness. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24(3), 158-169.
White, S. W., Oswald, D., Ollendick, T., & Scahill, L. (2009). Anxiety in children and
adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical psychology review, 29(3), 216-229.
This article was featured in Issue 59 – Top Strategies, Therapies and Treatments for Autism