Our brains are evolutionarily wired to respond to distractions. As our world has become full of distractions, teens with autism often struggle to filter out irrelevant information and become easily overstimulated. They’re either caught up in the future or the past and constantly jumping between the two and struggle to be present when they need to be. On the latest episode of our podcast, Neurodiversity University, we talk with therapist Matt Jimenez about mindfulness and how he uses fly fishing to teach neurodiverse kids how to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a way to be present in the moment that helps teens understand their emotions in a clear space and allows them to be one with their bodies and minds.
How Might Neurodiverse Teens Benefit from Mindfulness?
For teens with autism, their minds are constantly racing. When you add in something like ADHD and hyperactivity, they’re going from one thing to the next pretty rapidly without giving themselves a chance to think or breathe. Given difficulties they experience with social communication and executive functioning, they often find it hard to cope with the demands of their social environment and experience higher levels of perceived stress.
Mindfulness-based programs can help teens with autism become more focused, as they are trained to shift between widening and narrowing their attention, reflect on experiences, and notice their physical experiences. In social interactions, they can practice being more aware of their own emotions and understanding others when they are not as distracted by other sensory input.
Some things neurodiverse teens struggle with that affect their ability to stay present include:
- Emotion regulation
- Thinking processes
- Cognitive flexibility
- Sensory processing
How Can They Use Mindfulness?
Mindfulness gives them the ability to slow the process, their minds, their bodies, and feel the physical presence of their emotions so that they can learn and use coping strategies. Without this, they are more likely to either make negative choices or become more dysregulated.
“Often, we feel like our thoughts are on one side of the street and our emotions are on the other, so we need to find a way to cross the street, describes therapist Matt Jimenez. “With students that have ASD, their thoughts and emotions may feel like they’re on opposite sides of the city. So, they have a harder time learning how to navigate the path they have to take to get there.“
Somatic awareness helps them to be more aware of their emotions when they’re caught up in their thoughts. Just as overwhelming thoughts can create a ripple effect, the ability to be more present can help them cope more effectively in multiple areas of their lives.
Ways to Be More Mindful:
- Breathwork. It may be something we do subconsciously, but it’s harder to take a step back and take 10 deep breaths without any distractions. Taking deep breaths sends oxygen to the brain and makes space for clearer thoughts.
- Spending time in nature offers a distraction from intense sensory environments. Whether out at the pond or on a hike, teens are better able to slow down and focus on the present moment.
- Noticing senses. Teens with autism often get hyperfocused on a single sensation that becomes more overwhelming. They have trouble integrating the wholeness of their sensory experience. Asking them to separate and describe their fives senses encourages them to observe their experiences more objectively. This helps them identify specific sensations they feel uncomfortable with and want to work through.
- Honoring silence. Many teens with autism are introverted and often suffer in silence. While we help teach them to communicate their emotions more effectively and to self-advocate, it is important to recognize how silence can offer them powerful moments of self-reflection. While neurotypical people may have a harder time sitting with silence, we acknowledge that, sometimes, when teens are struggling to describe their experiences, forcing them to talk isn’t going to be as effective for them. Our goal is to help them learn how to take advantage of those quiet moments without becoming overwhelmed by their thoughts.
New Focus Academy Can Help
New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.
For more information about mindfulness for teens with autism, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!