Monday 23 January 2017

Mindfulness and the Benefits for Individuals with Autism

When you hear the term “mindfulness” what comes to mind?

I’ve always thought that mindfulness and meditation were one in the same thing. I have come to realise that while the two are intertwined and that mindfulness is thought to have stemmed from meditation, they are decidedly not the same thing.

If you look up the definition of mindfulness in a standard dictionary it states: “mindfulness is i) the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; ii) 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, used as a therapeutic technique."

During meditation you are striving to achieve a higher state of consciousness by focusing on a single thought or on a chant. Mindfulness on the other hand is where you aim to achieve an acute awareness of the world and your place in it. Mindfulness doesn’t take you away from the world, the aim is to place you firmly in it!

I’ve begun to think of mindfulness as exploring the world around me with a fresh set of eyes and having a moment by moment awareness of my thoughts and feelings.

Everyone can practice mindfulness from the very young to the young at heart and we’ll get to how you can practice it in a moment.

Mindfulness is thought to have stemmed from meditation and has been practiced for thousands of years. Mindfulness is thought to have origins in Eastern philosophy and Buddhist meditation but it has only really become popular in western countries in the last 40 or so years.

I’ve become more aware of the practice of mindfulness and the benefits that it provides to individuals with Autism through managing O’s anxiety.

Quite often Anxiety disorders go hand in hand with Autism. Individuals, particularly children, with Autism cope better with routine, consistency and schedules and if any of these are out of whack, then it causes them to overly worry about the world around them.

So why mindfulness I hear you ask? To understand mindfulness, we have to delve a little deeper into our thought process.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all spend far too much time during each day worrying. You might worry about general everyday things like the traffic going too slowly as you’re on your way to work. You might worry about the big stuff like job security or about finances. We tend to analyze events that occurred in the past and may anticipate and worry about possible future events.

Children are no different, but their worries compared to those of adults are generally a lot smaller, but to a child the worry is huge. O worries about leaving belongings at school or day care, she worries about not understanding her friends, she worries about our pets. I am sure that her mind is constantly busy, telling stories and trying to interpret experiences that occurred during her day.

Worrying is a perfectly normal trait to have and it is something that we all do. But for some individuals, their worries seem to run away with them for no logical reason. When this happens it can stop the individual from appreciating and enjoying the here and now and if left unmanaged for too long, the worrying can spiral into anxiety and panic attacks.

And that is where we are now with O. She suffers from severe anxiety issues and I am sure that she has come very close to having a panic attack or two.

Mindfulness works because most of us can only fully focus on one thing at a time. When an individual is only concentrating on the sensations in their body, then conscious worry should not be possible and as such needless anxiety and stress cannot burden them. Well that's the theory!!

Some professionals have the belief that mindfulness is not something that we are born with but if you look at babies they seem to have the practice of mindfulness down pat. They are generally living in the moment and are happy to sit and watch the world go by. Babies will focus on only one thing at a time and they take joy in the simple things. Babies explore every angle of their food before it enters their mouth. Babies are practicing mindfulness without ever being taught how to practice it.

I think that when we are children we begin the process of worrying and this ability to be mindful all the time slips away from our grasp. So in my mind, mindfulness is a skill that needs to be practiced, re-developed and refined. We need to remind ourselves of being mindful in our day to day routines.

I personally think that mindfulness is awesome because you can practice it anywhere and anytime – if you sit down in the middle of your work place and start meditating, it might be frowned upon, however if you are sitting at your desk, then practicing mindfulness without disturbing anyone is quite easy.

There are many benefits of practicing mindfulness and not only will the practice assist yourself, it will also benefit your child. Being mindful of their surroundings will help to clear your child’s headspace and assist them to refocus on the task at hand. With practice your child will become more aware of themselves, they’ll be able to slow down their thoughts and tune out any distractions. It is thought that through practising mindfulness an individual is able to increase their optimism, happiness, compassion and empathy.

Practicing mindfulness means that an individual will become more aware of their own body, their thoughts and how their thoughts are making them feel. Being mindful could assist an individual in regulating their own emotions.

Some studies have even suggested the practicing mindfulness in the classroom could assist to reduce behavioural problems and aggression among students. Mindfulness would also increase their ability to pay attention for longer periods. Children can learn how to pause and respond to situations in the classroom and the playground, instead of reacting. This has to be good right?

In regards to anxiety, practicing mindfulness will assist an individual to switch their perspective from the all-consuming swirling thoughts running through them to their sensory perceptions of what is going on around them. And with practice, an individual’s emotional reactions could instantly deflate and the all-consuming panic could lose its power within seconds. Mindfulness would simply break the cycle of worry.
Quite often in the midst of an anxiety episode, the last thing that a child is capable of doing is switching off their emotional reaction. Imagine the empowerment that the child would feel if they knew that they had the skills to control their anxiety just by controlling their thoughts. That simply by stopping and taking some deep breaths, they can shift their perspective and can come up with a less emotional and more logical response. Imagine the power that the child would feel. Imagine how resilient your child is going to be just by learning how to practice mindfulness.

Sign me up, what do I need to do?


Have you ever noticed that children seem to be attracted to adults who are happy, they want to interact with you, play and simply be around you. However, if you're not happy, then the opposite happens. I think it is safe to say that adults who practice mindfulness would have a better influence on children. Those children would stand a better chance of becoming mindful themselves. Children who are constantly engaging with mindless adults are quite possibly going to become negative about themselves. I've seen how children react around mindless adults and it is a very sad sight - they're down on themselves, they lack self confidence and there is a lot of pent up anger.

If we’re going to encourage our children to practice mindfulness, we really need to practice what we preach!

If you are able to grasp the concept of mindfulness, you’ll be much more prepared when it comes time to impart the knowledge and skills onto your child. If your child sees you practicing mindfulness, then they may be more inclined to join you.

How you chose to explain mindfulness really depends on the age of the child, but the simpler you keep it, the better chance they will have of understanding what mindfulness is.

One way of explaining mindfulness is that you want your child to sit and pay attention to their thinking process. You could ask your child just to sit and listen to world around them, pay attention to what they hear. You could ask your child to pay attention to their breathing.

Start off small and work your way up. You don’t need a dedicated space to practice mindfulness, although if you have the space you could involve your child in creating a sanctuary where they can go to be mindful without being disturbed.

By making it a daily habit, mindfulness will become embedded into their daily routine and once it becomes a daily habit, your child will be able to take the skills with them into every day life.

There are many ways in which you and your child can practice mindfulness. The simple methods are paying attention during regular weekly activities like walking the dog, brushing your teeth, driving to work, concentrate purely on the task at hand and try to clear your mind of every other thought. You could give your child a mindful hug and be in the moment with them. It could be as simple as giving your child your full attention, no phones, no computer, when they are speaking to you.

Then there are more involved methods, these are a few that I think are beneficial…..
-        What can you hear? = Get your child to pay attention to the world around them just using their sense of hearing. What can they hear when they’re perfectly quiet? I do this at work on a regular basis with my Kindy children (ages 3 to 5 year olds.) When they need a break, when they need to calm down, I get them all to lie on the grass for about 3 minutes with their eyes closed and ask them to listen to what is going on around them. I’ve noticed a huge change in them all after we do this exercise, not only are they able to tell me sounds that even I don’t hear but they are calm afterwards. This exercise gives them the brain break that they need.

-        Anchoring = One of the books that we use with O when it comes to anchoring is “The Angry Octopus.” The idea behind the story is that the angry octopus learns to loosen up every inch of his body and mind starting with his toes and slowly going all the way up to his head. O is learning to squish every inch of her body before releasing the tension. There is a noticeable change in O after we have finished this exercise and she has much more clarity when reflecting on why she was feeling the way that she was.

-         Brain Break = I like the idea of a “Brain Break” during homework time and this is one that I am going to start implementing with O once school resumes. The idea is that while completing homework each day, stop your child, ask them to take a few deep breaths to calm themselves and their thoughts so that when they resume, their minds will be quiet and they can focus on the task.

-        The Art of touch = Take your child outside, get them to close their eyes, place different objects in their hands and ask them to describe how the object feels. Can they name the object? How does the ground feel beneath their feet? In this exercise, as you are removing their sense of sight, your child will have to concentrate on what they are feeling.

-        Just Breathe = Sit down with your child and get them to close their eyes. Ask them to breathe in for a count of 6 and out for a count of 10. This exercise lengthens and slows down their breathing and as such more carbon dioxide is released which has the effect of slowing the heart rate and calms your child down. This exercise is also very useful when trying to relax to go to sleep.

-         Finger counting = Another great breathing exercise is finger counting. Get your child to hold their hand up with their fingers spread out. Get them to put one finger at the base of their thumb and trace up their thumb slowly, then down the other side and then repeat for the remainder of their fingers. While tracing up a finger, breathe in and while tracing down the other side, breathe out. This exercise gives your child something to focus on and keeps their hands busy so that they can focus on breathing.

-         Heart to heart = With an older child, you could get them to describe to you what they are feeling and how their feelings make them feel inside? Where do they feel these things? This will help your child to recognize the feelings before the emotion becomes full blown. It will help them to experience and understand their thinking process and how their mind works. This is only going to serve to empower them as they will have some control over how they are feeling.
As with all new skills, mindfulness does take practice and perserverance. If you happen to see results shortly after implementing these tactics, then fantastic. If you don't, please keep perservering.

Just imagine the possibilities, the increased sense of curiousity and wonderment about their own thoughts, emotions and body sensations. The fact that your child will end up feeling empowered by the new sense of control over their own emotions is enough to keep trying.

If I can assist my children to develop a skill that will help them to connect to their own thoughts and feelings, then taking that 5 minutes out of my day, every day, the end result will be worth it.

And if all children were taught these skills during their childhood, wow, what a change we would see in just one generation.

If you are after any further reading on mindfulness there are some wonderful publications available, a few that we use are listed below. I do not receive anything for reccomending these publications or sites, they are just resources that we have found to be incredibly useful.

The Angry Octopus, by Lori Lite
The Mindful Child, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
Calming Your Anxious Child, by Kathleen Trainor
Be Mindful and Simplify your life, by Kate James
I Have A Worry, by Tanya Balcke

Kids Matter have loads of great resources and ideas for families.
Smiling Mind is a great FREE web based program that is designed to make mindfulness meditation readily accessible to people of ages and walks of life. This is one that O loves as she gets to "play" on my phone!!


  1. This is such an interesting post and very important as well. I really agree that mindfulness is something we as parents should practise, as we teach our children it as well.

  2. Great point of mimicking the behavior we want our children to see. I try very hard to show her that I'm taking deep breaths when I'm frustrated and I use my words to calmly talk to her. I don't hide tears because I want her to know it's ok to be sad and cry but I also make sure to show her happiness a lot more.

    1. I think it is very important for our children to see us showing our emotions. You're doing a great job with your kiddies.

  3. Great advice, I'll make a note of these for work and my kids

    1. My charges at work love doing their mindfulness exercises!

  4. This is a great post for everyone to read. I fully believe in Mindfulness and encourage my children to practice this everyday in every aspect of their lives.

  5. What a great read! Really somethinf I should start doing with my two years old daughter. Teach her to feel, touch and smell the world around. Because teaching a two years old the meditation is hard. We have tried yoga with her and she does a few moves and hopefully combine the mindfulness and the yoga could make her so much more in peace.

    1. That's exactly it. Mindfulness can be taught to children as young as two, we just need to break the steps down so that they can understand it. Little Monkey Calms Down is a great book for young children.

  6. I can't wait to try this with my daughter. It seems like you have been reading my mind. SHE IS ANXIOUS. Thank you.

    1. You are most welcome, I do hope that these ideas work for you and your daughter.

  7. What a helpful post. I really need to do this from time to time.

  8. this is such great advice! I really needed to read this - my nephew has autism and I watch him during the day! :)

  9. I love mindfulness practices and think they have value for children and adults. I've tried a few different resources for getting started with my kids. With mixed success. But so worth it to keep at it.

  10. I completely agree! Mindfulness is key!

  11. Such an interesting post ♥ Mindfulness is something we should practice and include it as a habit on our daily basis. The same for our kids, we should teach them.

  12. So much great information on conquering anxiety with mindfulness. Love the idea of mind over matter and helping others (especially little ones) work through their anxiety.

  13. I love how you define the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Plus thank you for the book suggestions I am going to look into those for my boys.

  14. Thank you for this well thought out article. I do not have a child with autism, but I did experience bad postpartum anxiety after my second child was born, and the #1 thing my cognitive behavioural therapist recommended to me was practicing mindfulness. What I like about it is it doesn't clash with any religion or value system because, as you said, it isn't meditation. It really helped me dispel intrusive thoughts, and it was a much better option than "zoning out" and going numb when I felt the anxiety overwhelm me. It also helps me focus on my home environment and be more organized and in a better routine for my children. I liked your suggestions for how to practice mindfulness with children too!


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