Musing about mindfulness and autism

Mindfulness and autism may seem on the surface to be totally unrelated but to me aspects of both have become connected.

Mindfulness as described by Joanna van der Hoeven in her book Zen Druidry is “living with full attention”. Now if I am understanding the ideas behind this correctly then there seem to be two aspects to living with full attention.  The first seems to be about fully engaging our senses, to notice more about what is going on around us.  The second aspect seems to be about living in each moment absorbing and experiencing things without the constant inner voices reminding us of things we still need to do.  If I’ve got the general idea of this about right then I am having mixed success with living mindfully.  And that’s where autism comes in.

In recent months I have become much more aware of the sensory aspects of autism and in particular how my children can be affected by sensory experiences.  For a neurotypical such as myself, the idea of a sensory experience tends to imply something more extreme than that taking place every day.  An average visit to a supermarket, for example, is not usually thought of as a sensory experience but for someone on the autistic spectrum, different senses can operate at much higher or much lower states than for a neurotypical person.  A visit to a supermarket can take on nightmare proportions.  I’m using a supermarket visit as an example here as most of us will be familiar with that environment.  How many of us have mindful visits to supermarkets (and I don’t just mean in terms of buying as ethically as possible)?  When was the last time you visited a supermarket and opened your senses as wide as you could, paying attention to all the noises, colours, smells, tastes and textures thrust on you?  Just imagine it…

Do you enjoy the sensation of being bombarded with all those things?  The artificial lights, multi-coloured packaging, canned music, loads of people talking and moving about, smells of foodstuffs and packaging, odd tastes in the circulated air, the surface of the floor beneath your feet, the feel of the trolley handle on your hands, the pressure as you try to move it.  Personally if I don’t filter much of it out I come out of a supermarket tired and wanting to hide away for a bit.  I can choose how mindful to be in that environment, my autistic children can’t.  The filters that our neurotypical brains develop to block out different levels of sensory input do not work nearly as well for those with autism.

I’ve recently learnt that my son has a much more acute sense of smell than I had realised.  The smell of a new textbook can disturb him so much that it can be a major factor leading to a meltdown. The smell of cooking eggs can make him feel sick.  My daughter is affected by certain sounds and seeks deep pressure contact without really realizing it.   The more I learn about the sensory strengths and weaknesses of my children the more I pay attention to the world about me.

I have become much more mindful of what is going on around me but I’m not simply absorbing the experiences.  I am constantly assessing sensory inputs, constantly judging how “autism friendly” any situation or location is.  Our modern world is not generally an autism friendly one and most of us won’t have the slightest idea how hard it can be.  I think mindfulness in the sense of paying attention to the full sensory input your environment can help give an insight into the sensory experiences of someone on the autistic spectrum.

My growing awareness of the sensory aspects of autism has, I believe, greatly enhanced my ability to live mindfully but I’m not there yet.

If you have read this I’d be interested on your thoughts on this topic.

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3 thoughts on “Musing about mindfulness and autism

  1. I'm so glad you posted this. Rarely is the subject of autism raised in relation to druidry and/or spirituality. As a person with Asperger's, I have to approach my spirituality a bit differently from other people. I have some advantages, though, too. Interesting to hear your thoughts on mindfulness giving an insight into the autistic experience. Thanks!

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  2. That supermarket example certainly made me think about sensory input. My own response to visiting such places is to shut down my sensory input to the necessary minimum (much to the exasperation of my wife!) but it certainly puts into context the response of my autistic grandson to be taken shopping. Initially he seems very alert and keen to notice everything . But I also remember a visit to a shop to buy him new shoes when he suddenly freaked when he though the shop assistant wanted to steal his old shoes! We had to leave and from then on his alertness had gone and he closed down so we had to taker him back to the car.

    Being able to adjust mindfulness depending on the context of our surroundings is a luxury we have and one we should value and develop. Knowing that it is a talent that some have more acutely than others, and that some find it difficult to keep under control should make us value it even more.

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  3. How interesting that you should write about the supermarket. I went to the Coop yesterday and they had changed the whole layout. In addition to the sensory issues, for someone on the spectrum, this can be totally disorienting. The wonderful thing, is that the techniques of mindfulness can be learned and used by autistic people to great advantage.

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