Mindfulness, a meditative practice focusing on attention and awareness training, has been shown to have positive effects on mental and physical wellbeing. A recent review of studies has also shown that mindfulness meditation helps people with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder reduce their mental and physical problems.
Challenging behaviour is the most prevalent problem faced by people with these disabilities. It includes aggressive, self-injurious, destructive and disruptive behaviour.
These behaviours occur in as many as 15% of people with intellectual disabilities. Up to 95% of people with autism spectrum disorder also show some form of challenging behaviour.
Challenging behaviour is a major threat to the education of children with these conditions. It is also a major reason leading them to criminal pathways.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness teaches how to be aware of what is happening to us in the present, both physically (such as breathing) and mentally (such as emotion). A total of 254 individuals with disability aged between 13 and 61 from 21 studies participated in this review.
The review reported two approaches to teaching mindfulness. The first was developed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder and is often used to self-manage physical and verbal aggression. One example is the “Soles of Feet” technique.
Students are asked to breath naturally and remember an anger-provoking incident. They are told to imagine and experience the anger, and then shift all of their attention to the soles of their feet. Students keep breathing and focusing on the soles of their feet until they feel calm.
The other approach employs preexisting mindfulness programs such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (a psychological therapy designed to prevent relapse into depression by changing the way you think with meditation), mindfulness-based stress reduction (intensive meditation and yoga focusing on greater awareness of the mind and body), acceptance and commitment therapy (a psychological intervention using mindfulness to increase psychological flexibility), and dialectical behaviour therapy (a specific type of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy initially developed to treat borderline personality disorder).
What the study found
The review showed mindfulness meditation was effective for reducing aggression, both physical and verbal, reducing deviant sexual arousal, and for quitting smoking and losing weight in people with these conditions.
Mindfulness meditation also alleviated anxiety, depression, and stress-related physiological symptoms such as salivary cortisol (a stress hormone found in saliva) and alpha-amylase (a digestive enzyme sensitive to stress).
These effects were either assessed against the condition of participants before their mindfulness training or individuals with similar disabilities who did not learn mindfulness.
No side effects were reported for people with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder from learning mindfulness meditation. However, mindfulness was only effective under certain conditions. Since mindfulness meditation is attention and awareness training, it can’t be forced, and participants have to choose to learn.
Sustained engagement and long-term practice are essential for any positive effects mindfulness may have. People with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder require support to be engaged in learning. Training in mindfulness can be both labour intensive and time consuming. This is more so for people whose disability is more severe.
Mindfulness instructors need to have both experiential and intellectual knowledge of mindfulness. In addition, teaching people with disability requires knowledge of disability and the capacity to adjust mindfulness training methods to meet a wide variety of learning needs.
Yoon-Suk Hwang is a Research Fellow at the Learning Sciences Institute Australia.