When children who have autism or sensory processing disorder come into my office for therapy, I frequently use meditation and breathing techniques to help them calm and regulate themselves. I’ve found these self-calming techniques to be very effective in easing their stress – and research is starting to show that these techniques also are an effective modality for treatment.
Mindfulness is generally defined as maintaining a state of nonjudgmental focus on, and awareness of, the present moment. Increasingly, professional journal articles are pointing to successes in teaching such mindfulness techniques as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing to ease anxiety and stress – both in school settings and at home.
Earlier this year, master’s degree candidates in occupational therapy at the University of Texas at El Paso taught mindfulness techniques that calm the body and mind to kindergarten through fourth-grade students at a local elementary school. More than 200 children, ages 5 to 10, practiced yoga, meditation and sensory strategies to help them manage stress, ease test anxiety and focus on schoolwork.
Many of the children I see have autism, and autistic children typically have sensory processing or self-regulation issues – they may get too excited; they might overreact to certain stimuli, like sights and sounds; they might have high levels of anxiety in social situations. An effective way to treat them is to teach them to use meditation and deep breathing as self-calming techniques before they have an overreaction, a meltdown or a temper tantrum. The same is true for children who have ADHD or are hyperactive – as part of their “sensory diets,” we give them a set of exercises to do to help them self-regulate and calm down, and breathing and meditation are always pieces of that puzzle.
Contributor Sarah Bradley wrote in The Washington Post last fall of discovering her 8-year-old autistic son during her family rush one morning, sitting cross-legged in the bathroom, eyes closed, hands resting on his knees. He told her he was meditating. He had never started meditating by himself before, Ms. Bradley wrote, but his occupational therapist incorporates mindfulness into his weekly sessions, usually with the Breathe Kids meditation app.
Mindfulness, she said, is helping him recognize his emotional responses to stimuli and make appropriate choices about how to act on those responses. “For many kids on the spectrum,” she wrote, “gaining control over the relationship between their mind and their body is a major challenge.”
The large population of kids that we treat in our clinic includes not only children with autism, but also many children who have sensory processing disorder – kids who have a hard time regulating themselves across the senses (sights, sounds, touch, movement). They either get too excited or not excited enough. For those who get too excited, it often leads to maladaptive behaviors, and meditation helps calm them down.
In our clinic, we use three therapeutic programs that employ self-calming techniques, in addition to breathing and mindfulness meditation. They are The Alert Program® (alertprogram.com), described as “Self-regulation made easy”; The Brain Gym® Program (breakthroughsinternational.org/programs/the-brain-gym-program), “Moving with intention for optimal living and learning”; and The Zones of Regulation® (zonesofregulation.com/index.html), “A framework to foster self-regulation and emotional control.”
These are all well-known and well-established therapeutic treatment protocols. While the authors may call the techniques something else, what they all have in common is that they incorporate meditation and mindfulness.
As such programs have become increasingly popular and mainstream in the general population – both adults and children – their use is gaining momentum. That in turn has fostered increased exploration in the pediatric population as well, and the techniques are starting to show some effectiveness.
Although in the clinic and at School Based Therapy Services we treat ages 0 to 21, the bulk of our cases are children between 3 and 8 years old. Whether these children have autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder, mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing are always my go-to treatment modalities because they are proactive measures: They will head off over-stimulation and circumvent negative behavior or a meltdown. By teaching children these techniques in therapy, they learn to apply the techniques to stressful situations at home and in school.
We make these tools part of the “sensory diet” that we create for each child, with a set of activities and exercises to be done several times a day. The exercises help children avoid becoming over-excited; they are able to calm themselves and remain calm.
For example, a child with autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder may have a difficult time sitting still for a half-hour or 45 minutes in class. Prior to that class, we’ll have them perform their sensory diet, which might include some gross motor exercises, a couple of minutes of deep breathing, visualization, and meditation, to help get them ready to learn. Then they’re able to focus on that class instead of being overstimulated. The goal of the sensory diet is to help children get ready to learn, and to focus for longer durations without requiring a break.
Teaching these mindfulness techniques to young children equips them with important tools they can use to cope with the stresses of school and social situations – not only through their growing-up years, but on into adulthood.
On Parenting Perspective: Can meditation help kids with autism better cope with sensory overload? by Sarah Bradley, The Washington Post, November 7, 2018.
UTEP Occupational Therapy Students Teach Children Mindful Ways to Ease Stress by Laura L. Acosta, UTEP Communications, UTEP.edu, February 25, 2019.
The Power of Meditation by Emmy Vadnais, OTR/L, HolisticOT.org, originally posted on ADVANCE Magazine, October 1, 2015.