Can Mindfulness Interventions Support Autistic Children?
Mindful vs. narrative focus in nurturing autistic children’s well-being.
Posted February 19, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Direct experience is a here-and-now, moment-by-moment connection with one’s body and mental state.
- Research with neurotypical populations suggests that “basic present-centered focus” may be crucial for nurturing wellness and well-being.
- Mindfulness interventions for autistic children shows positive preliminary results across many areas, such as emotional wellbeing.
- Meta-analyses conclude that small and varied sample sizes make mindfulness interventions for autistic children difficult to evaluate.
My all-time favorite mindfulness analogy is inspired by an article titled “In Earth’s Rhythm,”1 which describes examples of connecting with nature as ways of depicting the experience of a present moment awareness. Holidays and other times of connection with nature are perfect examples of the contrast between what Farb et al. (2007) termed direct experience versus narrative focus.
Farb et al. (2007) referenced Gallagher’s (2004) term narrative self-reference in describing an “over-learned mode of information processing that has become automatic through practice” and is associated with the activation of medial prefrontal cortices. These neural circuits are termed higher-order processes due to having evolved most recently.
A narrative focus integrates internal and external information through a meaning-making process with relevance to one's self, helping individuals to establish a narrative understanding of their orientation to the environment. This is an essential mechanism that helps individuals construct meaning out of the myriad of scattered moments in their day and a sense of identity.
On the other hand, Farb et al. (2007) referred to direct experience as a here-and-now moment-by-moment connection with one’s body through the senses, as well as an awareness of one’s momentary mental states. Direct experience is associated with the “more lateral prefrontal regions,” including the insula and somatosensory cortex. It is a different means of processing information to narrative, self-referenced, mind-wandering reflections tainted with evaluations and judgments.
Holidays and opportunities to connect with nature are salient examples of effective means of putting a break on the narrative mental overload of day-to-day life, uncluttering from its processing of information around expectations, concerns, or mentalizing about relationships.
For my family, simply the enjoyment of the gentle rocking motion of a tire swing in our local nature park is an effective way to re-establish the direct sensory connection with ourselves and what feels like a parallel universe of nature’s wonderous banquet.
As my little ones enjoy the soothing rocking motion of the swing, their senses open to the onslaught of whatever sounds, sights, smells, and tastes surround them. This direct sensory experience helps them to reconnect with their bodies and nature’s pace in the present moment and induces much calm and well-being.
Incorporating mindfulness practice into your daily life can begin with an intention to embrace opportunities to “come back” to pockets of moments during the day and experience them mindfully through the senses, with kindness and curiosity, whether they be playing at the park, enjoying a moment of creativity, or a game of “eye spy” while driving in the car.
Farb et al. (2007) concluded that moments of returning to the “basic present-cantered focus” and experiencing its associated neurological shifts might be crucial for nurturing wellness and well-being. There are numerous well-designed studies (with control groups and neuroimaging) that explore the therapeutic value of mindful interventions (most definitions of mindfulness include, as the key component, a present-moment, non-judgmental awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003)).
A few key brain areas that are impacted by the various types of meditation, including mindfulness and yoga, are the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and brainstem. Mindfulness has been consistently found to be beneficial for de-escalating stress response, strengthening the use of executive functions, and helping to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
In terms of looking specifically into the impact of mindfulness interventions on young persons on the autism spectrum, studies found mindfulness interventions to be beneficial for anger management, social communication, emotional well-being, and behavioral functioning (Hartley et al., 2019).
Metanalysis of research into mindfulness interventions for autistic individuals by Harley et al. (2019) found that studies either required parental involvement or offered parallel interventions for carers. The authors concluded that research is still in the process of synthesizing evidence and seeking to tease apart the impact of particular mindfulness interventions versus the impact of improvements in carer well-being due to their mindfulness practices on study outcomes.
Either way, it has been consistently found that mindfulness interventions for carers have a positive impact on the well-being of their children. For example, Raulston et al.’s (2021) concluded that mindful parenting is a protective factor against carer depression and is associated with greater well-being in children and their parents.
Despite encouraging preliminary results, meta-analyses to date conclude that small and varied sample sizes, as well as limited control groups, make mindfulness studies difficult to compare and draw definite conclusions from.
I look forward to more future research that elevates the weight of support for mindfulness as an intervention for nurturing the well-being of autistic individuals. However, for the moment (excuse the pun), the promising pockets of results make it a worthwhile intervention to keep in mind as a means of nurturing wellness in your family!
1. Arendt-Dziurdzikowska, Renata. “W Rytmie Ziemi.” Express Polsko—Australijski, August 4, 2013.
Farb, N. A. S., Segal, Z. V., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., Fatima, Z., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4), 313–322. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsm030
Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1), 14–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01417-5
Goldfarb, E. V., & Sinha, R. (2019). Fighting the Return of Fear: Roles of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and the Hippocampus. Biological Psychiatry (1969), 86(9), 652–653. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.08.027
Hartley, M., Dorstyn, D., & Due, C. (2019). Mindfulness for Children and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Caregivers: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(10), 4306–4319. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04145-3
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology (New York, N.Y.), 10(2), 144–156. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
Raulston, T. J., & Kosty, D. (2021). Mindful Parenting, Caregiver Distress, and Conduct Problems in Children With Autism. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 126(5), 396–408. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-126.5.396
Ridderinkhof, A., de Bruin, E. ., Blom, ’R, & Bögels, S. . (2018). Mindfulness-based program for children with autism spectrum disorder and their parents: Direct and long-term improvements. Mindfulness, 9(3), 773–791. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0815-x
Ridderinkhof, A., de Bruin, E. ., van den esschen, S., & Bögels, S. . (2020). Attention in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Program. Journal of Attention Disorders, 24(5), 681–692. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054718797428
Shapiro, S. L., & Carlson, L. E. (2017). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000022-000
Singleton, O., Hölzel, B. K., Vangel, M., Brach, N., Carmody, J., & Lazar, S. W. (2014). Change in Brainstem Gray Matter Concentration Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention is Correlated with Improvement in Psychological Well-Being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 33–33. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00033
Tomasino, B., & Fabbro, F. (2016). Increases in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and decreases the rostral prefrontal cortex activation after-8 weeks of focused attention based mindfulness meditation. Brain and Cognition, 102, 46–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2015.12.004