Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the nervous system. Children on the autism spectrum may have difficulty communicating with others, understanding social cues and engaging peacefully with the external world. Because autism affects each individual differently, autistic people are described as being “on the spectrum.”
Meditation can help autistic individuals learn to interact more peaceably with themselves and their environment. Overall, the practice of meditation will help a person learn to be present, handle strong emotions and develop self-confidence. Here are four more specific ways that mindfulness practices can help individuals on the autism spectrum.
It helps develop self-compassion
Part of meditation is learning to observe your emotions instead of reacting to them. This is important because emotions often aren’t a clear reflection of reality. Observing your emotions will give you the space to determine whether you should listen to them or if you should react in a different way next time.
Learning how to process emotions in a healthy way is something everyone has to learn, but strong emotions can be particularly difficult for autistic individuals. Since autism affects the nervous system, autistic individuals are more sensitive to emotions than many of their peers.
Part of meditation is slowing down your brain and focusing on breathing. Instead of trying to control your emotions, you can take the time to name them. Consider where you feel emotions in your body and wait for them to dissipate naturally. The more you practice sitting with your emotions, the easier it’ll be to avoid being overwhelmed.
As you practice observing rather than reacting to emotion, you can also practice self-compassion toward yourself. Every person struggles with emotion in some way—some people feel they’re too emotional, while others wish they could demonstrate more emotion. Slowing down your mind and learning how you work is one way of being kind to yourself on this front.
It grounds you in the moment
Often, anxiety intrudes when you think too much about the past or the future. It can be easy to dwell on past mistakes and wish you’d responded to situations differently. You may be haunted by embarrassing memories or times when you experienced failure. As the future is unknown, it’s equally easy to worry that you’re unprepared for what’s coming next.
Meditation can help reduce this anxiety because it grounds you in the present time. You can practice being present by tuning into your senses and taking slow, deep breaths. Slow down your mind in order to notice just one thing in front of you—like the sunshine on your desk or the tree growing outside your window. Think about taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing.
Learning to be present can significantly reduce your anxiety and help you stay calm when you’re exposed to strong stimuli. The more you practice being present, the easier it’ll be to refocus and stay calm under pressure. You’ll build mental strength, so you can choose peace even when you can’t control what’s happening around you.
Practicing mindfulness will also you check in with your body so you can calm yourself before stress levels get too high. You can build mindful moments into your day, or create rituals that prepare you for specific events, like meeting someone new or even going to the grocery store. Remember to breathe and allow yourself to learn along the way—learning to be present is a lifelong process.
It builds emotional resilience
Meditation can also help you grow your level of emotional resilience. Life is full of surprises, and sometimes they can be very stressful. The human nervous system communicates between the brain and the body, helping you interpret your environment and stay safe. Both emotions and sensations are connected to the nervous system.
Many autistic individuals experience sensory overload from stimuli they can’t control. For example, loud music in someone else’s car could trigger an anxiety attack, because it’s too much for your body to handle. Triggers vary among individuals, with some autistic individuals being affected by touch and others by too much light.
Through meditation, you can practice grounding yourself so you can handle strong external stimuli in a healthy way. Your emotions will grow calmer, and you’ll be able to identify that something is bothering you before it gets too bad. You’ll also learn that you don’t have to be upset with yourself if you react strongly to something other people don’t notice.
Being highly sensitive to external stimuli may feel like a curse. Research shows a strong correlation between autism and alcoholism—most likely, frequent drinking is used as a way to escape feelings of isolation. Being different can also be a gift, though. Your sensitivities will allow you to take good care of your body and anticipate potential danger long before other people are concerned.
It increases self-confidence
Because autism affects individuals’ ability to communicate, many autistic individuals act differently from other people. When stressed, you may “stim” or use repetitive motion to calm yourself down. You may also express strong emotions with more emphasis than other people. Sometimes, this can frighten or confuse the people around you.
Unfortunately, people aren’t often kind to those who stand out. Many autistic individuals experience horrible bullying or are made to feel stupid because they think differently. To protect yourself from isolation, you may have developed “masking” techniques to hide repetitive behaviours or suppress emotional responses. You might feel excessively self-conscious and uncertain of yourself around other people.
Nonetheless, it’s important to realize that no one can make you feel insecure and unworthy unless you let them. You may be different, but you’re not diseased. The true disease would be to believe that you’re “broken” and unworthy, or incapable of living a full life. Meditation can help you regain self-confidence and choose everyday happiness.
By meditating, you can gain more control over how you respond to emotions, and you’ll also increase your levels of compassion and understanding towards yourself. Once you learn to live in each moment, you’ll be less concerned about what stressful situation may come next in your day. Meditation can reduce your stress and teach you to recognize when other people are the problem—not you.
It’s all about brain training
Meditation is a risk-free and inexpensive way to strengthen your mental and emotional response to life. It can help autistic individuals develop self-compassion and reduce their anxiety by focusing on the present moment. Over time, meditation can build emotional resilience and increase self-confidence in the face of unexpected stressors.
Research has shown that, in a wide variety of situations, meditation can improve the human response to stress by helping individuals become more centred and self-aware. Meditation can be especially beneficial for autistic individuals because they experience both high sensitivity to what’s going on and around them and emotional detachment from their environments.
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