October 16, 2014

Mindfulness and Autism

Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of autism and it's effects  on the family. Once only a word I heard at conferences it now gained greater importance to me as several of my friends' children were diagnosed with the disorder. They would call me and confide their fears and anger and confusion. We would sit and talk over coffee and they would share what they learned from their doctor or from an article they read or a conference they attended. As they learned, so did I. I was inspired to start researching autism for myself. What I discovered shocked me.  I saw myself and my childhood friends in the behaviors attributed to and found mostly in people on the autistic spectrum. I began to understand that all my friends and I were living somewhere on the spectrum but were never diagnosed. There is a lot more awareness towards autism today and tools for managing the disorder than there were in the 70s and 80s. This is a good thing.

I also learned that my own personal journey helped me cope without me realizing it. I first became aware of behavioral psychology and NLP when I was 22. Learning how the brain worked helped me deal with several traumatic experiences, and started me on my journey. Over the years I took courses and attended workshops and conferences on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Relational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), Law of Attraction (LOA), Psychology of the Mind (POM), and Mindfulness. To me all these things spoke about the same thing, albeit in different ways and from different points of view. They all were talking about "Being in the Moment" and controlling your thoughts in one way or another.

Mindfulness; the state of open, active attention on the present, has helped me deal with divorce, depression and anxiety, have more gratitude, and become calmer and gentler with myself and everyone else. What was once thought of as a metaphysical and Eastern concept is now gaining acceptance in the West as a valuable tool for therapy and enhancing Quality of Life. I wondered if it could help some way with autism?

Earlier today I found an article on the website for MIT News that stated that researches in their Neuroscience Department were exploring a new hypothesis that autism may be a "prediction disorder." They believe that the issue may not be with the end symptoms but with the process of how people affected with ASD get there. Researchers suggest that autism may be rooted in an impaired ability to predict events and other people's actions. From the perspective of autistic individuals the world appears to a "magical" place rather than an orderly one and may explain repetitive behaviors and the need for a highly structured environment as coping strategies to impose meaning in an unpredictable world.

If the research supports the hypothesis it could lead to a "unifying theory" of autism and new strategies for treating the disorder. Meditation and other mindfulness techniques that allow people to be in the moment and proactively control their thoughts may offer an effective form of strategy when modified for the unique challenges that autism presents. It is important to modify meditations to avoid ambiguity or where imagination skills are required. In a study of autistic individuals exposed to Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) when asked to breathe in and direct the breath to their toes, one participant pointed to his stomach and remarked, "I can't do that. My lungs end here."

Teaching meditations that are tailored to the thinking processes of autistic individuals and other mindfulness techniques has shown to be successful. In 2011 two studies were conducted on teenagers and adults who were categorized as high functioning autistic or as Aspergers Syndrome. The teenagers were taught to shift their focus from the negative emotions they may be experiencing (frustration, anger, etc.) to soles of the feet. All the participants reported a decrease in aggression.

In the other study, 42 adults were randomly separated into a nine week MBSR training or put onto a "wait list" which served as the control group. At the end of the nine weeks, those adults in the training course reported a significant decrease in depression, anxiety, and worry than those in the control group (the "wait list").

I truly believe that meditation and other mindfulness techniques can help anyone improve the quality of the life, especially those individuals diagnosed with ASD. Meditation helps center you and gives you control. You no longer feel like a leaf on the wind. Why not try some simple meditations like the Thought Meditation or the Breath Meditation today? I'd be interested in hearing the changes you have found happening when you start this simple and daily practice.

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