Meditation and Autism

Meditation is as old as the hills. Now, some researchers are conducting new studies into its benefits. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used high-tech imaging tools to examine the brains of Buddhist monks as they practice meditation. He has discovered that meditation stimulates the parts of the brain associated with empathy, attention and mind-body interaction. His colleague, professor of psychology Barbara Fredrickson, discovered that even novice meditators reported increased feelings of love and connection with others, the same benefits attributed to ingesting oxytocin. Further, the vagal tone, a heart rhythm associated with the “calm-and-connect” response is strengthened as well. 

During the the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology, which meets July 23-26 in Philadelphia, Davidson will talk about meditation and neuroplasticity
— the idea that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and the environment, thus positivity can be learned. He contends that meditation not only benefits people psychologically, but it actually improves their immune system. In a recent study, he took two groups of adults, one that meditated and the control group that did not. After eight weeks, both groups were given flu shots. Those who meditated produced more antibodies, suggesting a connection between meditation and immune function. 

Empathy, attention, “calm-and-connect”, immune strengthening — all sound great for autism. Indeed, Davidson has been inspired to study preschoolers and fifth graders, including those with autism and attention deficit disorders, in an effort to understand the effect of practicing meditation in the classroom. Researchers will see if meditation can affect bullying, classroom attention, memory and anti-social behavior.

Scientifically, the results are not in but anecdotally, we know that when meditation is practiced in schools, it benefits children on the autism spectrum by promoting self awareness, the first step to self-regulation. Under stress, the child who meditates is more apt to remember to breathe. And because children with autism are so sensitive to the vibrations of others, having a whole group practicing meditation together goes a long way towards reducing classroom anxiety. I once witnessed my son’s social skills class meditating at the start of their session. A twangy gaggle of teens transformed to a calm, cohesive group after ten minutes of guided imagery and breathing. 

Renowned filmmaker David Lynch established a foundation to promote meditation in many arenas, one of them being school. He cites traumatic stress as the silent epidemic of our young people today, pointing out some grim statistics:

• Ten million students take antidepressant medication.
• Four million children suffer from ADHD and other learning disorders.
• Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers.
• Seventy percent of students with mental health problems are not getting the help they need.

Scientific research confirms decreased absenteeism, suspensions and rule infractions when students meditate. Meditation also assists in developing a state of learning readiness. Teachers and students report great benefits from school sponsored meditation. And in this era of budget hacking, no one can say it isn’t cost effective.