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Autism and the Neuroscience of Mindfulness

If you follow our feature, Mindful Monday, you know that we love sharing stories and tips on how to lessen the stress in your life. To better understand “how mindfulness works”, we went to our researchers and this is what they had to say:

Stress is a common experience among parents of all children, but life can be exceptionally challenging and stressful for parents of a child with autism. Although there are many strategies and therapeutic techniques that are designed to help parents manage stress, one strategy that has received considerable public and scientific support in recent years is mindfulness meditation, a secular form of meditation adapted from Buddhist meditation practices. Mindfulness meditation emphasizes paying attention to thoughts and feelings without judgment and allowing oneself to be present as events occur in the moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Often this is done by focusing on one’s own breathing or bodily sensations without dwelling on thoughts or feelings associated with things outside of the present moment. Although mindfulness takes training and practice, scientific studies of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) interventions have shown that mindfulness practice leads to decreases in parenting stress, anxiety, and depression, and improvements in sleep, well-being, and life satisfaction (Conner & White 2014; Dynkens et al., 2014).

There is a difference between MBSR, which emphasizes on the individual, and “mindful parenting”(Duncan et al., 2009). Mindful parenting in part involves applying skills of mindfulness into the parent-child interaction, including listening with full attention, nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child, emotional awareness of self and child, self-regulation in the parenting relationship, and compassion for self and child. Parents are taught to think about and respond to day-to-day situations in a mindful way. For instance, rather than involuntarily reacting out of frustration to a child who is throwing a tantrum, mindfulness training provides parents with strategies to voluntarily acknowledge and let go of automatic feelings before responding to the situation.

Of course, MBSR and mindful parenting can be difficult – mindfulness takes training and practice – but science suggests that mindfulness meditation can lead to less stress and a better sense of well-being because it changes how the brain responds to stress. Stress drastically impacts how the deep parts of our brains function and can even change the structure of brain regions. One of these brain regions, the amygdala, is well known for processing stress and guiding how the body responds. For example, the amygdala may signal other parts of the body to either increase heart rate or release hormones, and the amygdala is part of a brain system that helps us to decide between “flight or fight” in a stressful situation. When a person is under chronic stress, the size of the amygdala increases (i.e., increasing grey matter), which is unhelpful for the stress system because the amygdala becomes overly responsive to negative events.

One theory is that the neurobiological response to stress improves in a stepwise fashion, such that as mindfulness training increases, the brain begins supporting more controlled ways of thinking about and coping with stress (Zeidan, 2015; Zeidan et al., 2011). From a brain perspective, responses to stress invoke two different systems: a “hot” system that is largely automatic and involves sensory and emotional processing (for example, the amygdala), and a “cold” system that involves cognitive processing (for example, the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex). In times of acute or chronic stress, the hot system is often overly responsive compared to the cold system. In order to reduce stress, the goal is to find a better balance between the systems by increasing cognitive control and regulation and reducing sensory and emotional processing. Mindfulness meditation appears to help some people strike that balance by focusing on observing and acknowledging the sensations and reactions of the hot system, then allowing the individual to respond in a controlled manner.

A recent study looked specifically at how different stress reduction interventions change the way the amygdala is connected to other brain regions (Taren et al., 2015). In this randomized clinical trial, adults completed a 3-day intensive training in either mindfulness practices or more general relaxation training. After the intervention, brain changes were only observed for the mindfulness group, such that there were reduced connections between the right amygdala and part of the anterior cingulate cortex that helps regulate emotion, mood, and anxiety. In other words, by using mindfulness practice, the amygdala is no longer overly responsive, but rather more appropriately responsive to stressful or negative events. In addition, the adults who were taught mindfulness techniques exhibited better stress-related health outcomes and were more likely to continue to use the techniques at home following the study.

To learn more about mindfulness training, keep a look out for The Autism Blog’s ongoing Mindful Monday series.

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Conner, C. M., & White, S. W. (2014). Stress in mothers of children with autism: Trait mindfulness as a protective factor. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders8(6), 617-624.

Duncan, L. G., Coatsworth, J. D., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). A model of mindful parenting: Implications for parent–child relationships and prevention research. Clinical child and family psychology review, 12(3), 255-270.

Dykens, E. M., Fisher, M. H., Taylor, J. L., Lambert, W., & Miodrag, N. (2014). Reducing distress in mothers of children with autism and other disabilities: a randomized trial. Pediatrics134(2), e454-e463.

Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. 1994.

Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … & Bursley, J. K. (2015). Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, nsv066.

Zeidan, F. (2015). The Neurobiology of Mindfulness Meditation.

 

Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain mechanisms supporting the modulation of pain by mindfulness meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience31(14), 5540-5548.

Autism Awareness Events 2016

Autism Awareness (2)April is Autism Awareness month and there are no shortage of events to be found in our area! Check out these local happenings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seahawks Light It Up Blue

Sensory Sensitivity hours at Seattle Children’s Museum

UW Autism Center

SC Autism Center Autism 200 series

SC Autism Center Autism 101

 All in for Autism Run

Autism Society of America state-wide calendar of events

Washington Autism Advocacy Alliance (WAAA)

Voices of Autism conference Seattle Pacific University

Early open at Pacific Science Center

Open Doors for Multicultural Families

Families for Effective Autism Treatment (FEAT)

Autism Speaks

 

 

 

The Autism Blog turns 5!

5yearsFive years ago today we launched The Autism Blog. Since then we’ve posted more than 250 blogs and have nearly 950 faithful subscribers from all over the world.

We have to admit that we were a bit hesitant when first approached about hosting a blog. In fact, we weren’t even sure we knew what a blog was. Knowing how busy our providers are seeing patients, we wondered if it would be a challenge to get blogs written for a weekly posting. That indeed has turned out to be true but given that there seems to be no shortage of topics to cover, we always find a way to make our deadline, even if it means chasing down a provider in between appointments for a few words. The Autism Blog content/editing/graphics/video/production team consists of yours truly, Erin and Lynn and we continue to learn something new every time we post. Thanks to all who have contributed meaningful information for parents and their families affected by autism and to those who provide guidance with technical support. It’s a concerted labor of love and we look forward to the next five years with you!

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Questions Parents Ask Us at Seattle Children’s Autism Center

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 Questions? We get questions! With so much still not understood about ASD, our answers often don’t come close to what parents want to hear, yet we do our best to share what we do know and what we don’t know. Today we share some of the questions we hear most often at our center.

 

1. What caused my child’s autism?

We don’t know for every child. We’re working on it. But we do know that genetics is playing a very strong role in what causes autism. In fact, scientists can now identify the genetic contribution in nearly half of all children with a diagnosis of autism.

2. Did I do anything to cause it?

No. Although many parents feel guilty and worry about this, it is important to realize that you did nothing to cause autism.

3. Can autism be “cured”?

No. Treatments aim to improve functioning, but will not cure autism.

4. Will my child ever talk?

We just don’t know. Some kids with autism do, some never do. However, we do know that there are fewer children with autism who are minimally verbal than there used to be, likely a result of earlier intervention and behaviorally-based treatment?

5. What will my child’s future be like?

Unfortunately we are not able to predict with certainty what a child’s future will be. However, we do know that kids with ASD do make progress in skill development and overall functioning so continuing to help your child learn and grow is important. It’s hard to imagine your young child as an adult but keep hopeful your child and you will be different in years to come. Parents of teens and young adults often attest to this?

6. Do I have to do everything you’ve recommended to us?

No. You’re the expert on your family and the best recommendations are those that fit with your family’s values and capabilities. We provide you with a number of recommendations knowing that only you can decide what you can and cannot do. You might ask your provider to prioritize those that you feel you are able to do. There are many variables that come into play such as insurance coverage, access to services, financial ability, and competing demands in your life.

7. How do I get my child to stop (fill in the blank with your child’s challenging behavior)?

You may never get your child to completely stop. The core behaviors associated with ASD are stubborn and difficult to treat. However, behaviorally-based interventions can be effective in addressing challenging behaviors, reducing those disruptive behaviors, and increasing appropriate behaviors.

8. Is there a medication to help my child with (fill in the blank with your child’s challenging behavior)?

Maybe. There are a number of medications that have been supported by the scientific literature to help address behaviors that are sometimes associated with autism. For example, to reduce self-injurious and aggressive behavior, medications have been shown to be effective. Similarly, many of the medications that are used to treat depression and anxiety in children without autism work may well for children with autism. Medications to reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity can also be effective at reducing those behaviors in autism. Keep in mind, there is no medication that cures autism or that works for every child in addressing challenging behaviors. Work with your provider to assess your child’s unique issues.

9. How do I get my child’s school to (fill in the blank with what you wish your child’s school would do)?

Educate yourself and them, pull together resources for yourself (i.e.: an education ombuds, Wrights Law, fellow parents), approach them with a spirit of collaboration and partnership, be realistic in your expectations, and be respectfully persistent, citing precedents if possible.

10. How do I explain autism to others?

You can tell them that it is a developmental disorder that affects social and language skills and often includes repetitive behaviors, specific interests, and/or sensory sensitivity. Our blog is also a good resource to help people understand ASD. In particular, two blogs on why our kids do what they do might be helpful. (Why Do Kids With Autism Do That? Part I and Why Do Kids With Autism Do That? Part II)

Have a question about autism? Write to us and we’ll do our best to answer.

 

 

Addressing Challenging Behavior Part 2 of 2- This Month’s Autism 200 Class

apple1This month’s Autism 200 Series class “Addressing Challenging Behavior Part 2 of 2: Strategies for Home and School” will be held Thursday, March 17, 2016, at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Wright Auditorium from 7 to 8:30 p.m. These classes are designed for parents, teachers and caregivers. The topics associated with the majority of classes are applicable to all age ranges and for a wide variety of children diagnosed with autism. This  class will be led by Nancy Rosenberg, PhD, BCBA-D.