As the new year began, many of us may have set ambitious goals and positive aspirations for ourselves. We may wish to live healthier, happier, kinder, more productive, and so on. One thing that is constantly on the minds of families living with autism, is how to better help their child grow and learn. Mindfulness and other similar practices may not immediately seem effective or even relevant, as they have often been presented in popular culture as an introspective self-improvement strategy. When applied to behavior strategies, however, mindfulness and living in the present can be a key skill to understanding (and therefore changing) behavior patterns!
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, mindfulness involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. In its essence, mindfulness allows us to register and process the context of events and behaviors. While a well-designed positive behavior support plan should always lay out the reciprocal relationship between antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, such relationships may not be immediately clear to untrained family members and paraprofessionals when they occur in real time. Mindfulness creates the space for us to, instead of reacting instinctively to challenging behavior, identify what likely triggered the behavior and evaluate the probable impact our response will have on the behavior (i.e., if our response fulfills the function of the behavior, it will likely increase in the future and vice versa). Mindfulness allows us to become more able to notice and consider physiological, environmental, and social factors surrounding the behavior – leading to a more complete picture of the context. This insight further allows for more proactive and effective strategies (e.g., putting distracting items away before doing homework, offering choices, providing desired attention for appropriate behaviors) in the future.
The flip side of the mindfulness coin is indeed introspective. This is more closely aligned with popular understanding of mindfulness. Being mindful when challenging behaviors occur allows fo the assessment of our own emotional state. We all know from personal experience that if we are having a good day and enjoying positive emotions, we tend to be more relaxed, more tolerant, more patient, etc. If we are having a bad day and are experiencing negative emotions, however, we all tend to be less patient, less tolerant, more reactive, etc. Mindfulness of our own emotions, and their effect on our responses, will help to keep us centered on taking the best course of action (based on a well-designed behavior plan) and steering clear of over or under reacting.
While there are a myriad of ways to increase and practice mindfulness, a few specific ideas are presented here for parents and caregivers to try. The intention of these exercises is to require little time and be easy to accomplish. The first way is to Simply Observe – pick a 5 minute period during which another family member is interacting with your child. Sit back and try to just watch their interactions unfold. Notice the verbal and nonverbal communication, the sequence and tempo of events, and how each behavior/action leads to the next. Do your best to not form judgement, interject, or influence the interaction. Another way to increase mindfulness is to Carve Out Dedicated Time for an activity with your child. This exercise requires you to dedicate your full attention to your child and the activity at hand, so it is best to choose a time when you are free from other obligations. Additionally, it is important that personal electronic devices are put away and silenced as they are a powerful competition for your attention. Begin by selecting a short activity lasting 5-10 minutes, so you will be able to complete the activity with your child with fully dedicated attention. A third idea is to Tune Into the Senses with your child. Using a concrete item (e.g., a leaf) with a younger child, you can ask about what he/she sees (visual), hears (auditory), smells (olfactory), feels (tactile), etc. You may be able to discuss sensory perceptions by exploring more fleeting moments with a child with more complex language skills.
It is expected that practicing mindfulness will feel unnatural and difficult at first, especially if mindfulness is not something you already incorporate in other aspects of your life. However, it is also expected that you will become more fluent in being mindful and the exercises will feel easier after a while. As we are all creatures of habit, it is helpful to keep in mind that research suggests it takes an average of 2 months for a new habit to form (Lally et al., 2009). Our mindfulness ability is a cognitive muscle that plays a central role in our understanding and changing of behaviors – work it out often to have a well-toned skill!
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40: 998–1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674