Can meditation help kids with autism better cope with sensory overload?
One hectic morning, in a rush to hustle my three kids out the door, I found my 8-year-old son sitting cross-legged in the bathroom, eyes closed, his hands resting gently on his knees.
He said he was meditating.
I was skeptical, but the peaceful look on his face told me that whatever he was doing, it was working. He seemed far less stressed out than I was in that moment.
Though my son had never started meditating by himself before, it's not unfamiliar to him; his occupational therapist incorporates mindfulness into his weekly sessions, usually with the Breathe Kids meditation app.
My son has autism, and a large part of his occupational therapy centers on recognizing his emotional responses to stimuli and making appropriate choices about how to act on those responses.
Mindfulness is helping him develop this skill set because, to get better at self-regulation, he needs to understand the connection between his emotions and his actions.
And when you pare meditation down to basics, what's left is simply an attempt to forge connections: Between our minds and our bodies; our sensory input and behavioral output; our internal selves and the external world around us.
Nearly everyone can benefit from using mindfulness, says Stephanie Pickering, a psychologist with the Seattle Children's Autism Center who runs a mindfulness intervention program for teens with autism.
"In psychology, we've come up to speed in realizing how effective meditation is, (specifically) how important it is to be aware of what we're experiencing, be aware of the thoughts, feelings and emotions we have, and then creating a little space in between our experience and our reaction to it," she says. "There's so much power in that pause."
There is relatively little formal research on the benefits of meditation on children with autism, but pediatric occupational therapists have been unofficially using mindfulness with their patients for years.
And if one of the goals of meditation is to create space between an experience and our reaction, it makes sense. For many kids on the spectrum, gaining control over the relationship between their mind and their body is a major challenge.
Sarah Selznick, a pediatric occupational therapist from Virginia who has taught meditation skills, says meditation addresses three critical areas with which kids with autism struggle: motor skills, sensory regulation and socialization.
"The foundation for building these skills is being aware of your body, so even before I formally used meditation practices, I was building neurological connections between mind and body by asking kids to think about how our feet feel when we're walking," she says. "Practicing mindfulness allows kids to feel more in control of their body, which then leads to better sensory regulation and a decrease in social anxiety."
Bailey Koch, a special education professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, knows firsthand how beneficial meditation practice can be for kids with special needs: She used it in her classrooms as a public school teacher, and now teaches it to future educators in her position at the university.
She also uses it with her 12-year-old son, who has autism and often experiences the kind of intense emotional meltdowns that are common for kids on the spectrum, in response to triggers such as minor disruptions in routine or unexpected changes in plans.
"We primarily use mindful breathing for our son to help him when he is struggling with emotional regulation," she says. "He can escalate very quickly to dangerous levels, so we had to find a consistent way of helping him through those emotions and getting him back to a safe place."
These mindful breathing techniques have been so helpful for Koch's son that meditation has become a family affair.
"Meditation helps me as a teacher and a mother of a child with special needs," Koch says. "We use it as a family. It helps all of us remember to focus on what we can control in a very out-of-control world."
Though meditation can be useful for many kids with autism, Pickering says there are limitations, especially for kids who don't have the skills to learn or practice it correctly, or lack a basic understanding of its purpose. But there are enough options available that it can be adapted and customized to work for nearly every child.
"Lots of adults tell kids to take a deep breath, but a lot of the kids I work with don't know how to do that," says Selznick, "so we play a game using our breath to blow up a balloon. Other kids are turned off by the word 'meditation,' so we do things in a way that makes it fun, like walking meditations or pen and paper mazes."
The idea that meditation can take the form of physical activity may seem strange, but it's a necessary approach for kids who can't keep their bodies quiet and still.
For Ann Samson, a Toronto-based program called Young Warriors was a lifesaver when her son was initially diagnosed with autism at age 7 and was having difficulty managing his aggression and strong emotions.
The program, designed for kids with learning disabilities and mental-health issues, combines mindfulness and martial arts to show kids the power of their minds and bodies.
"My son learned a mindfulness technique they called 'sword breath,' where you hold your hand out in front of you and raise your 'sword' up and down as you breathe in and out," says Samson. "It was amazing the first time he did it. We were so relieved to see him using the tools."
Now 13, he no longer has an official autism diagnosis; the criteria has changed in recent years, and many kids find themselves on and off the spectrum throughout childhood. Still, he continues to struggle with many of the same issues. But he's able to talk to his parents about what is causing him stress, Samson says, and she thinks the mindfulness techniques helped him develop those skills.
"He can say, 'I'm getting angry at home when I feel like I'm not being heard.' He has an element of awareness (he didn't have before)."
Pickering encourages parents to practice meditation alongside their children so they can experience the benefits and understand how their child's comfort level grows with time.
If teaching a child to meditate -- and sticking with it long enough to see its effects -- sounds intimidating, there's no shortage of resources to make it easier.
Many meditation apps for adults, such as Headspace and Calm, can be used by older kids, and there are several apps designed especially for children.
YouTube is home to dozens of guided meditation videos for kids, and kid-friendly relaxation scripts use familiar sensory descriptions, like the sound of leaves crunching in a forest, to calm them.
There are also interactive books that can help kids learn mindfulness. Pickering likes "A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles" by Thich Nhat Hanh, "Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (And Their Parents)" by Eline Snel, and "Moody Cow Meditates" by Kerry Lee MacLean.
I never thought my son would like meditation and, in many ways, he still resists it (mostly because he hates being told what to do).
But we'll keep practicing, and maybe the next time I find him on the bathroom floor --meditating through the chaos that comes with getting all of us out of the house on time -- I'll even get down there with him.