By, Kelly DeSousa, MS, ATR
Studies have shown that certain types of mindfulness techniques can foster self-regulation for children on the spectrum. Mindfulness does not mean quiet meditation without any thoughts or interruption. Mindfulness just means focusing physical and mental awareness to the present moment. It is increasing awareness of the body and the space that surrounds it. Mindfulness practice is particularly helpful for anxiety because anxiety is often a result of focusing on the future (those nasty “what if” thoughts) and/or not feeling regulated within the body. Adaptive mindfulness simply means finding creative ways to practice mindfulness to accommodate for diversity among brains and bodies.
Yoga, meditation, and mandala journaling are some of my favorite mindfulness practices; however, mindfulness techniques that work for me may be different than what might work for you or your child. Below are some of my favorite adaptive mindfulness techniques that can help reduce anxiety. Practicing these techniques daily when you and your child are already feeling calm can build confidence and mastery so that they can also eventually be used as self-regulation tools. Incorporating mindfulness techniques into the daily routine can ensure opportunities to practice and establish and reinforce that sense of predictability.
- Practice breathing. You have likely worked on breathing techniques if you have a child with special needs. Maybe you already have a technique that works for you and your child. If so, this is a gentle reminder to keep practicing. Regulating the breath means gaining control and awareness of one of the body’s main physiological response to stressors. When breathing slows, the heart rate returns to normal, and the brain is eventually able come down from fight-or-flight mode. A technique we like to teach in our office is “heart-focused breathing”: 1) shift your awareness to your breath and breathe normally 2) imagine a peaceful, happy thought (drawing this image can help) 3) still breathing, imagine the happy thought expanding from your heart center and glowing, filling your whole body with a peaceful, happy feeling.
- Art therapists love mandalas! Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle and they have been created for centuries to facilitate meditation. We love them because creating or coloring a repetitive pattern within a contained, circular form can help increase focus and establish a sense of safety, tranquility, and well being. You can find free mandala coloring pages online by doing a Google image search for “free mandala coloring page”. Simply print and color. Or if you prefer to create your own designs, you can make a DIY mandala journal by taking a sketchbook and using a circular object to trace a big (or small) circle outline on each page. Use the circle shape as a starting point for making your own design. Mandala making has a similar effect on the brain as mediation.
- Sensory brushing can also help children with sensory dysregulation to be able to regulate emotions. Sensory dysregulation can lead to emotional overload and increased anxiety. Sensory brushing delivers comforting sensory input to the whole body, increasing body awareness and allowing individuals to feel more grounded and in control of their bodies. If you can learn to properly administer this technique, you will not only be able to provide a sense of peace, you will also have a special opportunity to join together and bond through touch. Even if your child typically doesn’t like to be touched, you might be surprised to find that he or she likes this kind of input. You can purchase specially designed sensory brushes or you can just use a natural sea sponge. Brush the entire body, with medium-pressure stokes, moving outward from the heart.
- Yoga and mindful body movement is an integral part of creating a sense of peace. Along the lines of sensory brushing, yoga and purposeful body movement helps individuals gain awareness and control of their bodies. Imagine for a moment what it might feel like to have a volume button on all of your senses. Okay, now turn them all up to 11. Highly sensitive individuals and those on the spectrum often feel this way, which can lead to sensory overload and strong environmental reactivity. In other words, the locus of consol becomes external rather than internal. Controlled body movements can increase the feeling of being in control of one’s body, which can pave the way for self-regulation. Most communities offer children’s group yoga classes. An RYCT is a Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher who is registered with the Yoga Alliance. Many yoga teachers (RYCT or RYT) will also offer private sessions upon request. A yoga therapist is a yoga instructor with special training in yoga as a healing modality.
- Another way to help calm busy brains is by examining, experiencing, focusing on, describing, or exploring something tangible with interesting tactile, audio, and/or visual qualities that can be perceived with one or more of the senses. Often, individuals with autism do this as a natural way to self-sooth by playing with toys that have enhanced sensory properties, often referred to as “fidgets”. Playing with a fidget could be considered a very basic form of object meditation. A more advanced mindfulness activity involving an object would be to draw a still life picture from careful observation of something tangible in the environment. Holding a smooth or bumpy rock, gem, or shell and experiencing and/or describing it’s properties and the way it feels against the skin is another way to bring the mind to the present and help reduce anxiety. Lavender aromatherapy spray and soothing sounds and rhythms can also soothe the senses.
- Mantra is the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase to facilitate meditation. The combination of mantra with a tangible object has been practiced for centuries in religious traditions. As an adaptive mindfulness tool, any kind of beads can be used as a tangible aide for mantra mindfulness practice. Affirmations are simple phrases that challenge a negative cognition. Some affirmations lend themselves to repetition and mantra practice. Repeating a positive affirmation can eventually “trick” the brain into believing it. Affirmations to reduce anxiety can be as simple as “I feel safe.” or “I feel calm.” Incorporating beads into mantra practice is as simple as touching one bead every time the phrase is repeated, moving the chain of beads gradually through the hands and fingers. You can make your own set of beads, choosing beads that are smooth, rough, squishy, or any combination of textures and colors that your child enjoys. Remember, those of us on the spectrum really do tend to like repetition, so this practice lends itself to autism well.
- A recent study showed that directing children to focus on the soles of their feet could help with emotional regulation when the technique is taught and practiced regularly over time. This technique is similar to the object-focused practice described above, but instead of an external object, the focus is internal, on a part of the body. Focusing internally may be particularly helpful for children who often feel overwhelmed by environmental stressors. To practice, direct your child to playfully and curiously become aware of the soles of his or her feet. Encourage your child to notice and, if possible, describe the way the bottoms of the feet feel inside shoes or on the ground and what the pressure of the ground feels like below them, etc. Continue focusing on the soles of the feet and help redirect attention as needed. If your child particularly likes this activity, it’s simple to practice and can be done as a warm-up for another mindfulness ritual.
I recommend taking about 5 to 10 minutes every day to practice an adaptive mindfulness technique. Try practicing a technique with your child daily so that it becomes a ritual. Try different things and learn what works for your child. Adjust and adapt creatively and let your child help guide you. Eventually, these techniques can be used as coping strategies to help de-escalate sensory and/or emotional overload. Practicing at the start of the day before encountering stressors may be the most beneficial. Perhaps 5 minutes of one technique in the morning and then another 5 minutes later in the day.