Sitting with autism

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woman meditating in the outdoors
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I’ve been practicing meditation for at least 20 years now. And when I say “practicing”, I mean that quite literally. Sitting down to meditate may sound easy enough, it’s just sitting and breathing after all. As with many things in life though, appearances can be deceiving. Most of us do those activities very regularly (especially the last one) but we almost never do them with intent. Meditation is actually quite difficult to do effectively. And for people on the autism spectrum, it can prove even more of a challenge. Below I will explain why and give you some of my tips for sitting with autism.

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Stop! Disclaimer time.
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First, a little disclaimer is required. For one, I am not a trained psychiatrist or psychologist so you take my advice at your own risk. Second, I am not qualified to teach meditation in any way or form. I am just speaking from personal experience. Finally, I am about to mention Headspace but I want to make it clear that I do not speak for them, nor does Headspace recommend or endorse anything of what I am about to tell you. I hope that takes care of the legal side of things!

Why meditate?

Some of you may wonder why I meditate in the first place, being an atheist. Isn’t meditation a religious practice? Well, not exactly. Meditation is a part of religious practice in Hinduism and Buddhism but there’s no reason why it can’t be practiced on its own, without subscribing to a belief system. Even a well-known atheist like Sam Harris meditates. There’s no need to believe in anything supernatural or other-worldly.

Meditation is associated with several mental and physical health benefits such as stress reduction, cardiovascular health improvement, reduced anxiety and coping with depression. Regular practice is said to improve self-awareness and help attain a better understanding of consciousness.

Our modern lives are often incredibly busy, stressful and distracting. The current pandemic doesn’t help matters either. Meditation allows us to take a small break from the demands of work, kids, family and friends. It’s a little bit of precious “me time”, a vacation in your head.

As you can see, there are plenty of good reasons why someone might try meditation, although I should mention that some people have a bad experience with it.

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My experience

I first began “sitting” when a local gym where I worked out, began offering a meditation course. They took small groups of about 10 people with an instructor who led a guided meditation. While it was a good way to pick up the basic technique, it was challenging to be there for each meeting because it was at an inconvenient time. Also, I found the noises that other people made distracting. Coughs, sighs, gurgling stomachs and so on, proved quite distracting. So pretty soon I left the class, picked up several books about meditation and starting meditating on my own.

This means I had to develop my own schedule, monitor my own meditation technique and also had to muster the discipline to stick to the schedule. While these were all challenging on their own, I struggled more with distractions while sitting. These were both distracting sounds as well as distracting thoughts.

Distractions…

Distracting thoughts are an issue for many people who begin meditation and I suspect the same is true for those with lots of experience. Our mind is always thinking, always busy with plans, worries and fantasies. While we sit in meditation, instead of our focus being on the breath, it’s suddenly with what we’re going to eat tonight, the shopping list or even composing this blog post. Shunryū Suzuki Roshi, in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” calls this our small mind, our “monkey mind”. Just like a small monkey, our mind never sits still but it’s always running around.

These distractions became a source of major frustration for me. I would sit with the best intentions, do my best to focus on my breath and before I knew it I was lost in thought. If not that, I was distracted by a sound, lost my focus and had to regain it. This often lead to more stress or annoyance instead of less so I’d give up my meditation routine.

That cycle of beginning a routine, becoming frustrated and giving up repeated itself I don’t know how many times. Then, I found Headspace, the brain child of Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk turned meditation and mindfulness trainer. Headspace creates an app that acts like a personal mindfulness trainer and offers guided meditation for its users. Free of the hassle of going somewhere and sitting with others or trying to make it work by myself, Headspace finally helped me establish a solid routine and for the past 2,5 years I’ve been able to meditate fairly effectively.

Tips for sitting with autism

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Distractions can be a source of annoyance
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If distractions can be such a problem while meditating, how difficult must it be for people who are easily distracted? People with ADHD or those on the autism spectrum, for instance. People with autism tend to be highly sensitive to stimuli and it’s often difficult for them to filter these out. That buzzing sound of your computer fan? You may not have noticed it but someone with autism may very well have. The screams of children playing outside? People who aren’t on the spectrum will filter those out easily but for those on the spectrum, that isn’t so easy. So how can you meditate effectively if sounds and thoughts distract you so easily? While I don’t have all the answers, I do have some that work for me.

1. Accepting the distractions

Accepting the distractions is easier said than done. If you can accept that distractions are just as much part of meditation as perfect focus on the breath is, they become less annoying. Accept that distractions happen but try not to follow them, not to cling to them. Notice you’re distracted and then let the distraction go. I sometimes visualize the distraction disappearing on the breath going out, so that it literally floats away. By doing that, I can integrate the distraction into my practice instead of focusing on it.

2. Minimize distractions

This may sound obvious but it’s definitely worth it. Pick a place and a time to meditate when you know it’s quiet. Early in the morning is a good time. Or late at night, if you’re more of an evening person. If you live with others, simply let them know you’ll be meditating and ask not to be disturbed. Turn of your cell phone notifications, radio, TV, computer and other electronics. If necessary, some earplugs may help as well.

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A lovely, secluded spot to sit.
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3. Schedule your meditation

People on the spectrum often benefit from having a routine. Finding time for meditation can be hard sometimes, even though it doesn’t have to take long. Especially when you’re busy, it’s easy to think you’ll just skip it for a day. That isn’t a good idea because the more meditation becomes a part of your routine, the easier it becomes. Making a schedule and sticking to it is the best way to integrate the practice in your routine.

4. Don’t close your eyes

Some people, like me for instance, tend to visualize a lot. While sitting, these visual daydreams or fantasies can be a major source of distraction. When you close your eyes, the brain is free to create all kinds of imagery so the answer is simple: don’t close your eyes. You don’t have to shut your eyes completely during meditation. You can close them almost all the way but leave a narrow opening so you can just see through your eye lashes. This minimizes visual distractions but prevents the brain from conjuring up all number of images. Of course, you can also try and focus on a burning candle or incense smoke rising up in curls. As long as it prevents you from becoming lost in daydreams.

5. Thought bubbles

Thoughts tend to bubble up in your mind very frequently when you’re sitting in meditation. It’s very easy to latch onto an interesting thought, forget about the moment and before you know it you’ve stopped meditating and are pondering other things. What helps me, is thinking of those thoughts as actual bubbles, like soap bubbles. When I notice a distracting thought that grabs my attention, I visualize that bubble being popped which helps me to let go of the thought.

6. Don’t give up

Like any new skill, meditation takes time to learn. Most of us aren’t used to just sitting, breathing and essentially not doing anything. It feels very unnatural to meditate at first because our “monkey mind” is so used to running the show, to running around. While people on the spectrum may have more difficult challenges while learning to meditate, these challenges exist for everyone. So just stick with it. Forget about the perfect meditation because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about gaining insight in the self and increasing awareness and well-being. If your meditation frustrates you, you probably have unrealistic expectations (as I finally learned).

Any more tips?

I approached the people at Headspace to ask if they had specific tips or information for people on the autism spectrum relating to meditation. Unfortunately, such resources aren’t available. I asked if they’d be interested in preparing something like it, where my experience could be reviewed by one of their teachers but unfortunately they are not accepting new collaborations at the time. I can understand that but of course there’s nothing stopping me from sharing my tips here, for what they’re worth.

I’d love to hear what you thought about my tips! Were they helpful to you? Have any tips you’d like to add or insights you want to share? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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