According to the CDC, 1 in 88 people have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The prevalence has increased ten-fold over the last 40 years. There is no cure, but there seem to be as many treatments as there are manifestations of symptoms of the disorder. On November 14, the David Lynch Foundation and Joey Lowenstein Foundation co-sponsored a webinar called "Autism, Meditation, and Stress" to discuss transcendental mediation as a potential treatment for those affected by ASD—one that is non-invasive, non-medical, and works to help those with ASD as well as their families.
Transcendental meditation is the name of this treatment—truly a practice or technique to quiet the mind. While transcendental meditation itself is not new, the initiative to bring the practice to those on the spectrum has taken off in the past couple of years. A panel of experts in the fields of autism, psychiatry, and neuropsychology, gathered to vouch for the merits of meditation for this particular population.
"Those with ASD are in a state of chronic stress," explained David Black, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Assessment and Treatment. While at this time the benefits of transcendental meditation are largely anecdotal for those with ASD, the research conducted with people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder show that this practice settles the sympathetic nervous system, can reduce blood pressure, and lessens reactiveness to stimuli. The experts emphasized that ASD is a stress-related condition since the four components of stress are novelty, unpredictability, perceived threat, and low sense of control. It's the sensitivity to all of these that make those with ASD "wired to be stressed," according to William Stixrud, Ph.D, a clinical neuropsychologist and President of the Stixrud Group.
But how does TM work to relieve this stress? What does it mean to meditate? Is it just sitting quietly in a room—is that meditation? Transcendental Meditation is taught in seven steps, usually over a four-day period. Anyone who wants to learn will be paired with a certified TM instructor—of which there are thousands in more than 200 cities nationwide. The teacher helps an individual choose a mantra that custom-fits him or her and teaches the student how to use the mantra to access and inner quiet. It all sounds very vague, but I trust that you have to try it to understand it. I haven't tried it myself, but I'm intrigued enough that I hope to meet with a TM instructor in 2014. I could certainly benefit from increased focus and decreased stress as much as anyone else.
It may sound counterintuitive that a child who cannot sit still would be able to meditate, but families report that after working with an instructor their child can do it—albeit only for a few minutes at first, but this will grow over time. Many families have already seen changes in the behavior of their children on the spectrum. Roberta Lowenstein and her 17-year-old son Joey—founders of the Joey Lowenstein Foundation—meditate together. Joey is nonverbal and when he first started to practice TM two years ago he was only able to sit for about 5 minute spurts. But after eight weeks, Joey was able to meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. Joey said (through his letterboard) that TM really helps him. He feels calmer. His mother has noted less outbursts. His grades in school have improved.
Roberta was shocked that her son was even able to sit down long enough to meditate. But he can, and he does. Children with ASD are able to meditate and find the calm within. "[The mind] is like the ocean," said Bob Roth, Executive Director of the David Lynch Foundation. "On the surface, the it's is busy and noisy, but deeper, a calm exists. We use TM to access a deep state of calm which is already present in a person." Scientifically, this meditation enlivens the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which allows for more flexibility, sociability, and ability to cope with novelty. Sounds like a good matchup.
While this webinar focused solely on TM, it isn't the only kind of meditation that can benefit children with ASD. In the past decade experts have embraced the idea of teaching a form called mindfulness to children with conditions including ASD and ADHD.
More research is necessary, and you do have to have the resources (TM costs around $375 per child—although scholarships are available) to match your child with a certified TM practitioner, but this practice may be worth exploring based on its tested effects on other populations. After all, TM doesn't produce the side effects that accompany drugs and some other experimental therapies. As one mom said during the webinar, "After one month of meditating, I realized that I couldn't remember the last time Alex had a tantrum."
Image: Courtesy David Lynch Foundation; Students meditating at a San Francisco school