Mindfulness and the Autism Community

04/24/2017

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Written by Megan Hennessey, M. Ed.

Originally published on Cool Gear Inc's blog, The Cool Down, on November 9th, 2016; Megan is a friend of The Roth Family Foundation and gave her permission to share the article here.


Someone once told me that, “If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future….you piss on the present.” I know it is not the most eloquent saying; however, its blunt message has been very influential in shaping the thoughts, aspirations and decisions in my life. My interpretation of this quote is that so often we get caught in projecting our awareness into the past or the future that we miss the beauty of the present moment.

My mind is constantly spinning on a reel of fear and anxieties, constructed by ruminations about what I should have done in the past or fear to do in the future. I know I am not alone in living my life with these struggles. So many of us have lost touch with the “moment-to-moment” experiences of our daily lives and forget how to…just be. Yes, the process of reflecting, planning, and strategizing is extremely important; however, it cannot take over our lives.

Now more than ever there is a need to provide individuals ways to combat the stress and pressure of living in today’s highly charged and anxiety provoking world. I believe mindfulness may be one helpful alternative and even a positive solution for this problem. Mindfulness practices can help us find peace within ourselves and learn how to create our own happiness.

My Personal Connection to Mindfulness

Before I get into what mindfulness is, let me first explain my personal connection to this topic in my life. My name is Megan Hennessey and I am in my third year of teaching Severe Special Education at the Cotting School in Lexington, MA. I went to Boston College for my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and Human Development. Then two years later, I received my Master’s Degree from Boston College in Severe Special Education. During my time at BC, I was a four-year Division I student athlete who was involved in many extracurricular activities and social circles.

If you ask anyone who knew me in college, they would describe me as a happy, bubbly, positive person who always enjoys having a good time. However, what so many don’t know about me, is that underneath that smile…is a girl who suffers from severe anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States affecting over 40 million adults; 18% of the population. For some, anxiety can lead to positive results because they are able to channel their stress to help them be more productive. For others, however, it can be a debilitating condition that has severe physical and mental effects. I am one of the latter who has suffered from anxiety in crippling ways.

Throughout my life, I’ve suffered from anxiety in all shapes and sizes. When I was younger, it was something I was able to control because life’s responsibilities at a young age were not nearly as stressful in comparison to when you are a grown adult. As I grew older, my fears and anxieties multiplied. During my college years, my anxiety began to stretch across every realm of my life: academic, athletic, social, emotional and physical. The more anxious I was about certain situations, the worse my reactions became. My stress was inhibiting me from living my life.

Let me share an example with you of how anxiety significantly affected my life. From the age of five until I was twenty-two, I swam at a highly competitive level. I was very successful and was recruited as a Division 1 athlete at Boston College. By the time I reached the collegiate level I had swum in thousands of races in my career, but whenever I had to perform at a high pressured meet (States, Invitationals, ACC Championships, etc), my body would shut down. After almost every highly competitive race I swam, my stomach would swell, my skin would turn ghostly white, my body temperature would drastically fluctuate from hot to freezing, I would throw up, and sometimes even pass out.

This problem started when I was 13 years old, but amplified as I grew older and my level of competition got more intense. After a traumatic experience at an Invitational, I was taken to the hospital to try and find a medical cause for what was happening to me.  After many tests and doctor visits, no biological reason could be found for my severe physical reaction from competing.  Then finally, I was referred to a gastrointestinal specialist.  After reviewing my case history and doing some additional tests, the doctor diagnosed me with a severe anxiety disorder.  He told me the cause of all these serious medical reactions I had been experiencing after competing was a result of my anxiety. 

I remember this moment distinctly.  It was when I first realized the person who was causing my body such serious pain and trauma…was me.  I was putting so much pressure and stress on myself to succeed that I was physically making myself sick. I put so much pressure on myself before and during my races that my stress would reach extreme levels.  By the time the race was over, my body was completely depleted of all energy and so my intestinal tract would actually shut down.

As soon as I was told my problems were not medically induced, I was referred to a sports psychologist. It was this sports psychologist who greatly impacted my life by introducing me to mindfulness practices.  For months, I worked with her on meditation, hypnosis, and other mindfulness strategies to train my brain to not let my anxieties take control.  She taught me how to quiet my mind and block out negative thoughts and oppressing fears.  She told me, “imagine a garage door coming down on your thoughts…and your mind going blank.”  This “nothing land,” where my mind was blank, was my “happy place”.  It was where I needed to go in order for my body to be safe while I was competing.  This “happy place” and other mindfulness skills I learned, are what saved my swimming career, and allowed me to continue competing at such a high level. I have been able to apply these invaluable tools to other areas of my life to help me overcome stressful situations.  Mindfulness has changed my life.


What is “Mindfulness”

Image titleAccording to Jon Kabatt-Zin, the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School,  mindfulness training is an intervention based on eastern meditation techniques that teaches how to still the mind, live in the present moment, and reduce automatic responding (Kabat-Zinn 2003).

“Mindfulness” can also be referenced as the “relaxation response.”  This term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson: professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, as the “personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain” (Mitchell, 2013). 

In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson describes the scientific benefits of relaxation, explaining how regular practice of the Relaxation Response (i.e. meditation) can be an effective treatment for a wide range ofstress-related disorders.

The “relaxation response” is initiated by focusing inward on what is going on in your body through deep breathing, meditating and bringing your mind back to the present moment.  This inner focus causes millions of neurons to make connections within the brain, allowing individuals to feel good, concentrate more easily, make good decisions, be kind, and be more aware of what is happening around them (Benson, 1975).

Mindfulness practices have been tested by clinical science time and time again, all results validate greater mental well-being and development of specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration in individuals that practice mindfulness.  According to Walsh and Shapiro (2006), those who practice mindfulness mental exercises learn to train their attention and awareness in order to gain greater voluntary control over their mental processes. It has been proven to be effective in children and adults with depression, pain, anxiety, eating disorders, and demonstrated to reduce aggression and improve attention, sleep, emotional regulation, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and ADHD.  (Hofmann, 2010).

Mindfulness In A Special Education Classroom

Daily in my classroom, I saw my students struggle with ruminating thoughts, regulating their emotions, distinguishing between a big problem versus a small problem, and functionally making rational decisions.  So often they could not control their rise in stress levels, that they would inadvertently initiate their “fight or flight” response in situations that did not merit such high anxiety. I decided that if I could find a way to teach my students how to train their minds to initiate the “relaxation response” instead of the “fight or flight” response, then their ability to function, learn new information, and handle unanticipated changes would improve greatly.

Unfortunately, there is very limited information on methods to incorporate mindfulness practices into Special Education settings.  Even though mindfulness in education is a very popular topic in the news today, almost all of the coverage and research focuses on the benefits it has had in main stream classroom settings.  Very little research has been done in regards to the effect mindfulness practices have on the special education realm.  So in order to teach my students these mental exercises, I needed to create an implementation plan on my own. 

From my special education teaching experience, I have found that in order for any skill to be mastered the students need concise, repetitive instruction with significant amounts of modeling.  My students, like most with special needs, thrive on routines.  I knew if I could make mindfulness part of our daily routines, the students would be more open to accepting and benefiting from the practices.Image title

At the beginning of this school year, I decided to make mindfulness practices part of my classroom’s daily routines. Throughout their school day, the students repeatedly were exposed to mindfulness practices in different capacities.  It became part of our morning routine: unpack, eat snack, do 5-10 minute guided meditation, then begin day.  After every transition, the students participated in 3-5 minutes of deep breathing to bring their mind and bodies back to class.  During lessons, at 15 minute intervals, the students practiced their deep breathing for a minute to give themselves a short mind break. Even for homework, I assigned 20 minutes of “unplugged” relaxation time every night.

Another way I incorporated mindfulness into my teaching practice, was by making sure that my classroom was always a conducive environment for learning.  I created this environment by making minor changes in my room that would relax every sense.  I relaxed the visual sense by dimming the lights, displaying a relaxing image/video on the SmartBoard, creating a relaxation corner in the back of the room, and a taping pictures of each student’s “happy place” scene onto their desks.  I relaxed the olfactory sense by diffusing natural essential oils (i.e. lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, and peppermint) into the air.  I relaxed the auditory sense by having a small water fountain in the relaxation corner and continuously playing calming, meditative music in the background throughout the day.  I relaxed the tactile sense by having the students create weighted meditation pillows for their body and eyes.  Finally, I relaxed the gustatory sense by always having hot tea or cold water available for the students to drink. By relaxing every sense, it triggers the brain and body to calm down and function in a more stable state.  Functioning at this relaxed stable state enables the students to have the strength, patience and open-mindedness to practice the skills necessary to elicit their “relaxation response.” 

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The Results in the Classroom

After just three months of incorporating these mindfulness techniques into my classroom, I already have observed incredible changes in my students. By engraining these mindfulness strategies into my classroom’s physical space and daily regimens, the students continuously strengthened their voluntary control over their mind throughout their school day.  Some key changes I witnessed in my students were the following: improved focus, improved emotional awareness and regulation, more compassion and empathy towards each other, increased flexibility when dealing with sudden changes, and an overall greater sense of calmness and happiness in their daily demeanor. 

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Mindfulness practices have completely altered the way I live my life.  I will forever have a deep, personal connection with mindfulness because of the experiences it enabled me to overcome.  Going through the many ups and downs with my anxiety throughout my whole life, has provided me a very unique perspective in my teaching and in my overall view of life.  I am more compassionate, patient, and open to look beyond peoples so called “inappropriate behaviors” and see them for who they really are.  Most of the time it is someone just like me, struggling to take back control of their mind due to the deep downward spiral anxiety put them in. It has been very special to be able to share something so personal with my students this year.  Although, witnessing the multitude of benefits these mindfulness practices have had on them has been something much more valuable that I cannot even put it into words. It made me realize how powerful these mental exercises are, and how positively impactful they can be on someone’s life.  If mindfulness interventions can take a larger role in school cultures and students daily routines, then the strategies will be more easily engrained in their minds.  Students will then be able to apply this knowledge across contexts into their daily lives.  No matter where they are, who they are with, what they are doing…when those strong feelings arise…the ability to activate their “relaxation response” will become instinctual.

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“Hurry has become the master. We have stopped sensing the stillness, the stunning fullness and beauty and divine perfection of the moment. Most barrel through life, unaware of their senses and surroundings, deaf and blind to the magical qualities of…this…very…moment. We are not supposed to miss it all, this life, but we do, all frazzled, stressed, and stripped away from Now.”

― Brendon BurchardThe Motivation Manifesto


Image titleMegan is in her 3rd year of teaching high school Special Education teacher at the Cotting School in Lexington, MA. Her background is in Elementary Education, Human Development, and Severe Special Education. Her teaching passions include integrating mindfulness strategies and meditation tools into the classroom so that students learn how to quiet their mind, be more self-aware, and present so they can best learn.

 



References

Benson, H. (1975). The relaxation response. New York: Morrow.

Burchard, B. (2014). The motivation manifesto: 9 declarations to claim your personal power. Hay House.

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555

Kabat-Zinn. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Retrieved May 19, 2016, from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1093/clipsy.bpg016/abstract

Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M., Dariotis, J., Gould, L., Rhoades, B., & Leaf, P. (2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985–994. doi:10.1007/s10802-010-9418-x

Mindfulness. (2011). Retrieved May 19, 2016, from https://www.mxschool.edu/mindfulness

Mitchell, MD, M. (2013, March 29). Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response, Learn to counteract the physiological effects of stress. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response.

Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. (2006, April). The Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from American Psychologist, http://sites.uci.edu/mindfulhs/files/2014/03/Walsh-Shapiro-2006.pdf