It used to take Jessica Harrison’s four-and-a-half-year-old, Victoria, an hour and a half to fall asleep every night. A bubbly and energetic girl, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), she’d get wound up and difficult to settle. But that changed when Jessica introduced meditation into Victoria’s bedtime routine.
They use an app called Louise Haye Affirmations. A voice tells Victoria to breathe in, while she watches a bubble blowing up with the word “breathe” inside. The bubble retracts as she breathes out.
Then they pick positive affirmations from the meditation, like I love my body. My body is precious, and I treat it with love. Victoria gets to say, then type, the affirmations.
With the camera in selfie mode, she looks at the screen, and repeats her affirmation.
Seeing, hearing, speaking then typing words makes it tangible and reinforcing, says Jessica.
“Victoria’s smiling as she’s watching herself and you see her relaxing as she breathes.”
Finally, the app congratulates a now-calm Victoria for completing the meditation. “Then Victoria passes the phone to me, rolls over and goes to sleep,” says Jessica.
And Victoria also gained a new tool through meditation that she uses throughout the day. “If she starts to have a meltdown I remind her to breathe. She has learned this helps her to calm down. We have not had hour-long meltdowns, which used to happen often, in the year and a half we’ve done mindfulness breathing,” says Jessica.
Is the most common therapy for autism harmful or helpful? Many parents of kids with ASD are turning to meditation, hoping it will help their kids with symptoms like anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, focus, repetitive thoughts and self-regulation. Research into the benefits is promising. In one study, parents of kids along the spectrum participated in an eight-week mindfulness program, then taught it to their children. Adults had improvements in the areas of parenting stress and family quality of life, and kids had reduced problem behaviours. A number of other studies show practicing mindfulness leads to lowered anxiety and thought problems in kids with ASD, plus social responsiveness, and less aggression in adolescents.
Practicing meditation takes patience, so it’s best to start with a few minutes and eventually increase the time. Kids will each have their own upper limit, typically from 10 minutes to an hour and a half—what matters more than how long the session lasts is how often the child meditates.
Like Jessica, many parents use apps. Some are designed for kids with anxiety and some target other symptoms or challenges common to kids on the spectrum.
For instance, Breathe, Think, Do Sesame is intended to help teach kids problem-solving, self-control and staying on task. Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness is meant to help with focus, anxiety and stress. Stop, Breathe, and Think Kids is described as helping with focus and sleep and identifying and processing emotions.
Practitioners say apps come with pros and cons: what’s especially good is that many app programs can be modified for each user, and they provide structure. But sometimes kids with ASD get fixated with, and overuse, technology, and then it’s not helpful.
Many kids with ASD do in-person training sessions as an alternative. The bonus is that they provide an opportunity for these children to socialize with peers on the spectrum. The Geneva Centre for Autism in Toronto has a meditation program called MYmind, originally created to help youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with focus and emotional regulation, then later adapted for kids with autism to help with symptoms like repetitive thoughts.
In separate rooms parents and kids practice meditative mindfulness: being in the present moment. Parents do it too because it helps them understand how it works and they can model for their kids.
Geneva Centre employs several techniques. These include getting participants to lie on their backs and tune into different body parts one at a time, tightening then relaxing each. Or the kids may be asked to hold a raisin in their hand and focus on its wrinkliness. They may squish it and observe how it feels, then eventually eat it.
Meditation can be practiced throughout the day, providing mental breaks from worries while helping kids with autism to appreciate being in the present moment, says Cheryl White, the behavioural consultant who facilitates the sessions.
“We let [kids] know how long the exercise will be, and they can keep their eyes open or closed. I tell them it’s not about trying to achieve anything, so they don’t feel pressured. We hope what comes from it is relaxation first, and then ultimately awareness,” explains White.
Through exercises like the one where they tune into each body part, they learn to recognize states like anxiousness or agitation and to identify body cues, maybe sweaty hands or chest tightness. Then they can choose to do what might make them feel better, for instance taking a break or asking for help.
Stepping Stones Counselling Group in Kelowna, BC, offers individual and group meditation for kids on the spectrum. Sessions may involve breathing and visualization, with music or recorded nature sounds incorporated to calm and to encourage kids to explore and experiment.
“We breathe and notice how the sounds influence us. The kids can adjust to what works for them, perhaps remove piano or chimes if they find them activating or distracting,” says Deanne Leung, clinic therapist at Stepping Stones.
Leung’s advice to parents is to start their kids in individual sessions, then talk to them kids about joining a group, so it’s not anxiety provoking once they are practicing with others. At home, explore apps and YouTube, and see what works best for them.
Katelyn Lowe, a Calgary psychologist who teaches meditation to kids with ASD and their parents emphasizes: “Learn alongside your children, not only to understand the practices, but to gain the benefits yourself—feeling less stressed and more joyful in day-to-day moments with your family—who wouldn’t want that?”