School-Based Mindfulness Program Shows Promise for Children with ASD

Improvements Seen in Executive Functioning and Attention

Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are faced with an additional challenge called executive dysfunction. A properly working executive function system provides a person with the ability to plan, problem solve, use working memory, monitor impulse control, manage inhibitions, make decisions, manage time, and initiate and scrutinize actions. However, these skills are typically missing in children with autism. Without proper executive functioning skills, classroom learning becomes especially difficult.

Mindfulness is a practice that has been recently used in traditional school settings to help students’ performance by cultivating better attention and concentration. Neurotypical children who have accessed and utilized classroom mindfulness programs have shown improvements in decision-making skills and reducing anxiety. A research team from Rutgers University recently investigated potential benefits of a mindfulness program for students with autism since this population often struggles with high anxiety levels, attention deficits, and impaired executive functioning skills.

Their study, Feasibility of a School-Based Mindfulness Program for Improving Inhibitory Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder was published in Research in Developmental Disabilities last month. While two previous studies investigated and found benefits from a school-based mindfulness program for neurotypical students, this is the first study to evaluate the use of mindfulness for students on the spectrum.

The research team hypothesized that a mindfulness program could improve the ASD student’s prepotent response inhibition (the ability to withhold an ongoing response that is no longer relevant) and interference control (the ability to filter out distracting information or suppress irrelevant responses) as well as enhance their selective attention. The Rutgers researchers were additionally attracted to mindfulness for four other distinct reasons they identified from previous research. First, a mindfulness program can be delivered during the school day, taking responsibility off of the family to conduct the program at home. Second, mindfulness is not a pharmacological intervention, which can lead to undesirable side effects. Third, educators become involved in the program and can possibly experience the same benefits. Lastly, mindfulness takes place in the student’s naturalistic classroom environment, not in a laboratory setting.

To conduct the study, the research team administered an eight-week program at Newmark, a private school for children with special needs in New Jersey. Twenty-seven students took part in this study and were considered to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Twice a week, for eight consecutive weeks, the students with ASD were introduced to fundamental mindfulness principles through specific practices like mindful breathing or attention focusing exercises for the body, thoughts or emotions. Each session included 9-12 students and lasted for 30 minutes.

Before the mindfulness program was implemented, the team tested the students on their impulse control, attention and decision-making skills. These same skills were re-assessed at the end of the program. At the close of the program, the Rutgers team found significant advancements in several areas of the students’ performances.

Lead investigator, Helen Genova highlights these improvements and told Science Daily, “We found that the children improved their executive functions like controlling emotions, maintaining self-control, focusing attention and being flexible in changing their perspectives.” Genova added, “As in previous studies on school-based mindfulness programs and typically functioning children, we found that the practice taught the students to take a moment to stop and breathe. This reduced impulsiveness and allowed them to make better decisions.”

In the end, the researchers revisited their original hypothesis and found significant improvements in prepotent response inhibition and interference control (medium effect sizes), as well as overall selective attention (large effect size).

The study’s conclusion states, “…school-based mindfulness holds promise for increasing specific executive functioning abilities in children with ASD. Future directions include examination of other effects of mindfulness and replication of our study using a well-designed randomized controlled design.”

The co-executive director of Newmark, Regina Peter, says her school now promotes mindfulness every morning and before tests and competitions. “Practicing mindfulness teaches our students the important skill of treating the moment as something that needs to be attended to and to let everything else go,” she said. “The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it is a tool they can take out when they need it. It is not a medication with side effects, and it’s free.”

Resources

Elizabeth L. Hill. Evaluating the Theory of Executive Dysfunction in Autism. Developmental Review. Volume 24, Issue 2. June 2004.

Randye J. Semple, Vita Droutman, Brittany Ann Reid. Mindfulness Goes to School: Things Learned (So Far) From Research and Real-World Experience. Psychology in the Schools. January 2017.

Anthony C. Juliano, Aubree Okun Alexander, John DeLuca, Helen Genova. Feasibility of a School-Based Mindfulness Program for Improving Inhibitory Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Research in Developmental Disabilities. June 2020.

David S. Black, Randima Fernando. Mindfulness Training and Classroom Behavior Among Lower-Income and Ethnic Minority Elementary School Children. Journal of Child and Family Studies. June 2013.

Patricia Liehr, Naelys Diaz. A Pilot Study Examining the Effect of Mindfulness on Depression and Anxiety for Minority Children. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. February 2010.

Patti Verbanas. Mindfulness Improves Decision-Making, Attention in Children with Autism. Science Daily. June 3, 2020.

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