Stop. Breathe. be. Supporting Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder Using Mindfulness Training
Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with average and above average intellectual abilities have been identified as a particularly at-risk group. Persisting impairments in self-regulation, social communication and interaction, coupled with increasing awareness of social differences and limited services places these youths at significant risk of secondary social and emotional problems, including high rates of loneliness, victimization, and mental health problems. Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have emerged in the literature as a promising approach for improving coping, social and emotional skills in a variety of adult and child populations, however, research in MBIs and ASD remains limited. By offering training in self-regulatory and self-awareness skills, MBIs may be particularly effective in improving the social and emotional well-being of youth with ASD.
The purpose of this study was to investigate whether mindfulness training is an acceptable and effective approach for improving social and emotional well-being in youth with ASD.
Adolescents with ASD between the ages of 13 and 17 years, with a VIQ > 80, were recruited for this study. Adolescents meeting inclusion criteria (N= 14) participated in a 9-week, small group MBI which focused on training youth in self-awareness, stress management, and positive coping strategies. Participants completed pre- and post-training measures including: 1) a measure of emotional intelligence, the BarOn Emotional Quotient-Inventory: Youth Version; 2) a measure of emotional dysregulation, the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale; 3) a social/emotional outcome measure, the Behaviour Assessment System for Children, Second Edition: Self-Report of Personality; and 4) a measure of mindfulness, the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised, in a randomized order. Parents of the adolescents completed 1) a screening instrument for ASD, the Autism Quotient: Adolescent Version (pre-training only); 2) a Participant Information Questionnaire assessing diagnostic and developmental history (pre-training only); 3) a social/emotional outcome measure, the Behaviour Assessment System for Children, Second Edition: Parent Rating Scale; and 4) a social skills measure, the Social Skills Improvement System: Parent Rating Scale. Parents and adolescents also completed a post-intervention feedback survey to assess acceptability and feasibility of the intervention.
Parents reported significant improvements in adolescents’ social skills and reductions in problem behaviors following the 9-week MBI. Adolescents reported no significant changes in emotion dysregulation, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness. Quantitative and qualitative responses from the parent and adolescent feedback surveys indicated high ratings of program satisfaction and feasibility, as well as improvements in self-calming, self-management, and emotional skills. Results are considered exploratory and generalizability is limited by the study’s small sample size and lack of control group.
The results from this study add to emerging empirical support for mindfulness training in youth with ASD by providing evidence to suggest that this approach is engaging, acceptable, and effective in improving social and emotional skills and well-being. The results of this study also highlight important measurement considerations, including the utility of mixed-methods assessment strategies. Implications for group-based interventions, program evaluation, and future research will be discussed.