I’m feeling inspired by #AutismAwarenessMonth and our latest endeavour – improving the lives of those living with autism and other developmental disorders through Acumen’s Human-Centred Design course.
Now, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are life-long neurodevelopmental disorders that effect an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with their environment. This implication strongly influences the individual’s behaviour, particularly in a social context. Scientific thought converges on the idea that autistic individuals have an underdeveloped theory-of-mind, or rather the ability to empathize thought and behaviour.
In response to this, behavioural therapies are often implemented as early as possible to offset the severity of the disability. Recently, mindfulness-practice has become considered an supplement to traditional behavioural-therapy interventions.
Now what is mindfulness? From a theoretical perspective, mindfulness is the idea that individuals are able to see the bare bones of experience and the true state of reality. It is a way for a person to clearly perceive the world. From a more tangible perspective, mindfulness is a skill rather than an inherent trait, and like any other skill, it can be practiced and improved.
The idea of practicing mindfulness is transferable to the case of autism. Mindfulness practice has linked to physiological change in the brain, which provides valuable information for the treatment of the behavioural abnormalities of ASD. It is supported by empirical evidence of exercising several cognitive functions, like attention regulation, body awareness, and emotional regulation, as well as changes in self-perspective. Similarly, individuals diagnosed with ASD exhibit deficits and limited capabilities in several of the cognitive functions effected by mindfulness practice.
But how can mindfulness practice actually improve the lives of those living with ASD? Mindfulness practice, such as insight problem solving and meditation, encourages flexibility in perspective and de-automatization of behaviour. Individuals living with ASD often have very rigid behaviours and perspectives. Mindfulness practices works to improve flexibility and cognitive control help individuals avoid automatic behaviours that are often unhelpful in day to day situations. Therefore, ASD individuals, who are usually rigid and self-referential can learn the ability, over time, to shift their perspective from their personal perspective to an external perspective. Mindfulness is a relatively new concept compared to traditional psychological therapies, and is by no means a replacement for these interventions. However, with long-term, guided practice, it does show promise for some cases.
Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffe, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 5540-5548.
Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 373-386.
Mikhail, K. (2012). Pragmatics, Cognitive Flexibility and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Mind & Language, 1-28.
Geurts, H. M., Corbett, B., & Solomon, M. (2009). The paradox of cognitive flexibility in autism. Trends in cognitive science, 74-82.
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., & Treadway, M. T. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 1893-1897.