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The practice of quieting the mind, otherwise known as mindfulness, is increasingly being practiced across the board – from Google executives to classrooms as a replacement to detention (Bloom, 2016). Mindfulness specifically refers to the practice of paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. Observation of our thoughts and feelings allows us to better understand our emotions and react rationally to negative situations.
Imagine snacking on a bag of chips. We then think about yesterday’s meeting, or all the dishes that need to be washed. Eventually, without even noticing, a few chips turn into half of the bag. Our minds are constantly wandering, ruminating on anything but the present, which can lead to increased anxiety or depression. This is where mindfulness comes in. Despite all the recent buzz, mindfulness is backed by hard science: the practice has been shown to not only reduce stress, depression, and aggression but also change brain regions associated with emotional regulation, introspection, and awareness (Holzel et al., 2011).
Although most of the research has been done on typically developing adults, a new body of work has shed light on the benefits of mindfulness in children with Autism. Aggression, an especially challenging behavior, has been an important behavior of study in the scope of mindfulness techniques. In contrast to the current behavioral and psychopharmacological interventions for aggressive behaviors, mindfulness-based interventions empower individuals to develop self-management strategies to regulate their challenging behaviors. In a longitudinal study and intervention, researchers had adolescents with autism learn the “Soles of the Feet Procedure,” which involved shifting attention from the emotional trigger to the soles of their feet (see below). Aggressive acts were significantly reduced from 14-20 per week to 4-6 per week after the 3-year follow up period (Singh et al., 2011).
Additionally, mindfulness techniques have been shown to improve parent-child relationships and significantly reduce parental stress, improve parental wellbeing and overall health after just a few weeks. This parental change in behavior has the reciprocal effect of reducing stress and anxiety among their kids (Keenan-Mount, Albrecht, & Waters, 2016). In addition to parents, mindfulness training can allow teachers to better regulate their reactions to stressful classroom situations and manage the social, emotional, and educational needs of their students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A five-week mindfulness teacher training intervention introduced stress management and relaxation techniques as well as the application of mindfulness techniques to teaching. The training not only improved teacher’s self-efficacy beliefs but also allowed teachers to better cope with challenging situations (Benn et al., 2012).
Therefore, mindfulness practices may be a viable technique in not only improving behavioral and cognitive responses in those with ASD, but also the overall well-being of their caregivers. Although mindfulness may seem like foreign territory, incorporating mindful practices into daily life can be quite simple.
Recently, a good amount of research and publication has focused on this subject. The following is a list of additional resources:
Benn, R., Akiva, T., Arel, S., & Roeser, R. W. (2012). Mindfulness training effects for parents and educators of children with special needs. Developmental Psychology, 48(5), 1476.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on psychological science, 6(6), 537-559.
Keenan-Mount, R., Albrecht, N. J., & Waters, L. (2016). Mindfulness-based approaches for young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their caregivers: Do these approaches hold benefits for teachers? Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(6), 5.
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.
Krupa Patel recently received her B.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California and is currently a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Mind, Brain and Education program. She has previously taught STEM in elementary classrooms and is an advocate for inclusive education. She has also worked at a nonprofit aimed at supporting individuals with mental illnesses in rural areas and de-stigmatizing mental illness. Her specific interests lie in the intersection between neuroscience and developmental disabilities and hopes to pursue a career in Pediatric Psychiatry or Neurology.