“Put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others.” If you have flown on a plane, you likely have heard this safety phrase. It is a perfect metaphor for the importance of taking care of yourself in order to best help others. Mindfulness exercises have been empirically shown to directly and indirectly benefit parents of autistic children as well as autistic children and adults.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment in a particular way, as described below. Although the practice of mindfulness has been around for centuries, research and training in the Western world has recently been expanding. Mindfulness means:
- Paying attention to the present moment. Much of our day is spent planning for the future or dwelling on the past. While simple in nature, directing our awareness to the here and now can be difficult to practice as our minds love to wander. Taking the time to tune into immediate sensations, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings requires an intention to do so.
- Having a non-judgmental and accepting attitude. Sometimes when we direct our attention to the present, we may encounter uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Many have a tendency to label these as “bad” and therefore think of them as things to avoid. Having an open, accepting, and non-judgmental stance toward these sensations can be difficult, but over time these unhelpful or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings begin to carry less weight or influence on your actions. The next time you catch yourself saying “I shouldn’t feel that way” or “Don’t be sad,” see if you can make room for that emotion and explore it in a curious and non-judgmental manner.
How Does Mindfulness Help People?
Scientists are working to understand how practicing mindfulness impacts the brain as well as the whole nervous system, and behaviors. Research has shown that mindfulness can directly decrease parents’ levels of stress and indirectly target challenging child behaviors by modifying parenting practices and attention. Additionally, training in mindfulness exercises shows significant increases in well-being and decreases in anxiety for autistic children and adults.
- Mindfulness can help create space. From an evolutionary perspective, it was adaptive for humans to make decisions or judgements quickly, especially when facing real danger from predators. In today’s world, however, it’s not always helpful to respond instantaneously to uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Mindfulness enables us to pause and not react automatically.
- You are not your thoughts. In addition to wandering, our brains love to make up stories for us (e.g., “I’m unlovable” or “no one will ever want to be my friend”). Mindfulness allows us to recognize that thoughts are just thoughts and provides perspective for these maladaptive thoughts.
Mindfulness Strategies to Practice at Home
- Five Senses Exercise
- Take a moment to notice five things you can Look around to find things you do not usually pay attention to or notice.
- Now notice four things that you can feel. You may bring your awareness to the textures of your clothing or the feeling of your feet on the ground or your back resting on a chair.
- Tune into three things that you can hear. See if you can hear sounds in the background that you may not notice on a day-to-day basis.
- Shift your focus now to your sense of smell. Try to notice two different smells. See if you can note scents that you do not typically notice. These may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
- Finally, bring your awareness to one thing you can taste. You may notice the current taste in your mouth or take a sip of a drink or small bite of a food to help.
- Mindful Eating
- Pick a small candy or snack and hold it in your hand. My favorites are raisins or M&Ms.
- Pretend that you are an alien and that you have never seen one Take a moment to really look at it with a new sense of curiosity and openness.
- Feel how it rolls around in the palm of your hand or between your fingers.
- Hold it to your nose and see if you can detect any fragrance. If you don’t smell anything, note that too.
- Hold it close to your mouth and, before you put it on your tongue, note any urges you have (e.g., to take a bite).
- Now, place the item in your mouth and pay close attention to the textures and tastes by rolling it around your tongue.
- Slowly bite down and notice any changes in flavor or texture. Before you swallow, take note of the urge to do so.
- As you swallow the item, pay attention to the full experience.
- Leaves on a Stream
- Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting underneath a tree by a flowing stream.
- As a thought, sensation, or memory arises, simply place it on a leaf and watch it float down the stream. The thoughts may come quickly or repetitively. That’s okay. Each time one comes up, just put it on another leaf.
- The goal is not to push them away but to practice noticing them as they arise.
- Some teens and parents I’ve worked with tell me the stream is hard to picture, so you can also try this exercise imagining cars driving by on a road, floating clouds drifting by, or blowing bubbles.
Tips for Practicing Mindfulness Effectively
- Perfection is not the goal. Many parents tell me they are “not good at mindfulness” because their mind keeps drifting away from the exercise. However, changing the narrative is so important when you are starting out with mindfulness practice. The fact that you are catching your brain move away from the experience is practicing mindfulness. It doesn’t matter if your mind drifts to other things 100 or 1,000 times – the important thing is just to notice when it does. Because it will. One way that I like to help return to the present-moment is acknowledge that it occurred by saying “Ah. Thank you, mind!”
- Make it a group activity. Mindfulness exercises can be fun to try out as a family or with a group of friends. It’s helpful to go into it with an open and willing attitude. The more that you can engage and share, the better.
- Relaxation is not the goal. Relaxation may occur as a result of practicing mindfulness; however, many fall into the trap of thinking this is always the case or even the goal. Remember, we want to practice bringing our awareness to internal and external sensations, regardless of whether they may be comfortable or uncomfortable.
Practicing mindfulness creates positive physical and mental health outcomes for you and those who you interact with daily. It’s important to remember that mindfulness does not require a 24/7 commitment. Let’s face it, you have so much going on in life and adding one more thing might feel overwhelming. When you are first beginning to practice, it may be helpful to remember that our breath is like an anchor, it’s something that we can always come back to and steady ourselves. If you have 30 minutes or 10 minutes – fantastic! If you feel like that is too much, then try setting a timer for just one minute or even take a moment to slowly inhale and exhale once while paying full attention to the air coming in and out. I also encourage you to try multiple exercises as some may resonate more than others. The more you practice regularly, the more tools you have in your toolbox to tackle challenging or stressful situations.
Resources for Getting Started
These articles and websites provide more information on mindfulness practices:
Deanna Swain, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, and is a recipient of an OAR 2015 Graduate Research Grant. Her primary research interests include family and systems level impact on parent-mediated interventions as well as a multi-method approach to measuring emotion regulation in parents and children with ASD. Dr. Swain has received specialized training in several naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions and conducts assessments with children and adolescents at the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain.