“THIS IS WHAT I FEEL”

As I stated in an introductory post, it’s important to me to include here voices other than my own, and I’m particularly interested in the experiences of those for whom mindfulness is, was, or could have been a saving grace based on childhood challenges of all kinds.

Julia is a woman living in Britain, who was diagnosed in adulthood with autism spectrum disorder. Although busy pursuing post-graduate studies, she graciously took time to share some experiences and reflections with me.

First, would you describe your mindfulness practice?

I aim to do a formal meditation practice every day. In reality, this happens in phases, depending on how I’m feeling and how busy I am. I have a set time, first thing in the morning, because I manage to get things done better if I have a timetable.

I often use the CDs I got from an eight-week mindfulness course to guide my meditation practice, but if I’ve been doing it regularly for a while, I can also do it in silence. I like to mix up different meditations—e.g. walking, body scan, different versions of the same thing by different people. My favorite is probably the 45-minute sitting meditation because [the duration] allows me to really get into it. But it’s also the hardest.

I am currently working through a book, which is set out as a course, and am finding that useful for getting myself into meditation again [after a break]. Some days, I spend part of the meditation timeslot reading, and then do a practice based on what I’ve read.

How is mindfulness helpful to you—whether in general or in relation to autism?

In general, it’s helpful for feeling better about myself and enjoying what I do. It helps me accept limitations and difficult things and make the most of [my abilities].

In relation to autism, I find it helpful for two particular things: 1) trying to notice how I feel, and 2) creating space when things are overwhelming—this could be sensory things, people, or anxiety in a difficult situation.

That kind of space is so valuable. Can you describe how, for you, it’s created?

Quite often when I’m busy, it is easy to feel swept up in tasks and ideas about what I’m doing and need to do—they press in and swirl together. It can feel overwhelming and as though there are no edges to separate what’s happening.

Through practicing mindfulness, you learn to observe those thoughts and activities without being tied up in them. There is a bit of space between you and everything else. The result is feeling more in control, more able to choose what to do, and perhaps also more connected to what’s happening.

It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it, how stepping back can lead to feeling more connected.

An analogy might be looking at a painting in a huge gallery. It’s very detailed and wonderful, but you can’t see all of it at once. You see it in a fragmented way. At the same time, you’re also trying to read the information card about it but keep switching between the painting and the card and get all muddled up. Mindful “space” would be like if you were to walk to the other end of the hall. There you can easily see the whole picture. You enjoy just looking for a while, then read the card uninterrupted, then choose specific parts to study based on the reading. It’s all still there, but clearer, and you are able to choose how to view and approach it.

How do you think mindfulness activities might have helped you as a child?

This is hard to say. I was easily absorbed in observing things like insects and animals, and I think I might have been able to transfer that [observation] to internal things, with the right help. Maybe starting by watching external things, then being taught to transfer that skill inwards with concrete examples and suggestions—with care taken by the teacher not to tell me how I “should” be feeling.

That’s a brilliant idea—so simple and so apt.

I was even worse [than I am now] at understanding and identifying feelings when I was young, so I don’t know how successful [such training] would have been, but I could have learned to be kind to myself. I was very empathetic with animals when I was little (and still am), so maybe that could have been used as an analogy to help me understand.

For example: I could tell if a pet was unwell long before my parents noticed, but they always trusted what I said and took it to the vet immediately because I was always right. Maybe there might be a way to help children use that sensitivity to small details to notice changes in themselves and to be kind to whatever they feel, the same way you would never judge a dog or rabbit for being scared or unwell or in a bad mood.

I don’t mean an arrogant, “This is what I feel, so there,” but rather, “This is what I feel. I don’t like it, but I’m still okay—it doesn’t make me a monster.” [For autistic kids] that acceptance might be a first step to being able to identify needs and to ask for help.

I gather you had some unhappy experiences.

I want to make it clear that my parents are wonderful, kind people who did the best they could with an undiagnosed autistic child. I would often get upset and wound-up about things that I couldn’t communicate, and they had no idea what was going on. Also, I’d mistakenly upset people with incorrect word choice or incorrect facial expression [relative to cultural norms], although I didn’t know at the time that I was getting them wrong.

“Monster” is an emotive word, but because nobody knew what was going on, I felt like I was “bad.” Because why else would these things keep happening? I found strong emotions very difficult to handle and had a lot of trouble identifying emotions at all. These are all things that are explained by autism but were a mystery at the time. Mindfulness, along with better understanding, helps to lessen the impact of the “echoes” of those feelings in adulthood.

What do you think it would benefit educators to know about mindfulness in relation to autism, and perhaps especially unidentified and/or undiagnosed autism?

I think utilizing mindfulness could help build confidence in children, and help teachers respond to children who are struggling whatever the cause, e.g. from emotional problems, difficulties at home, poor academic ability or fluency, social difficulties, or poor engagement with the class.

A teacher with a strong personal mindfulness practice would likely be more able to tune in to what a child is communicating / feeling / experiencing. And if teachers feel something negative when interacting with a child, mindfulness could help them notice that feeling and explore what’s going on, both for themselves and for the child, so they can respond constructively.

It’s interesting you say “unidentified autism.” [Mindfulness] would be very important in that case, I think, because it would help teachers to be accepting of all children, regardless of temperament, ability, etc. I often felt rather hopeless at school. Maybe teachers could help create a different experience [for other autistic kids].

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This interview was lightly edited, with Julia’s permission and approval.

 

ENERGY SHIFT

I’d like, on this site, to relay research that excites me and ideas that have me in thrall; but I’d also like to include, from the beginning, the voices of others: researchers themselves; former students who have memories of experiencing mindfulness in the classroom, as well as those who wish they’d had the chance; other persons in the helping profession who share this passion; and educators, who have a unique opportunity to connect with large numbers of kids.

To that end, if you feel you have more than a comment’s worth to say on the subject, let me know so that we can work out an interview or guest post. Also, if there are specific issues or questions you’d like to see explored, you are welcome to email me at presentmomentlearning@gmail.com.

Starting the conversation, here’s a brief Q and A* with Jenna Howard, who is lead teacher in the Choices Program at Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon, Maine. Jenna works with students who experience behavioral and emotional challenges at school. As a flowering of her own spiritual path, Jenna sought ways to improve the experience of her students and in August 2013 attended a weekend workshop on mindfulness in educational settings, at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY.

Q: First of all, how do you, Jenna, define mindfulness?

A: I define mindfulness as being aware of everything in the present moment. I know some people don’t like to use the word “aware” with mindfulness, but that’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Can you offer a synopsis of the workshop you attended?

A: It was led by a variety of people, including psychologists, teachers, administrators, and professors and several people who are well known in the mindfulness education / social and emotional learning fields: Daniel Rechtschaffen, Linda Lantieri, and Dan Siegel.

There were different lectures, mini-workshops, and breakout sessions to choose from throughout the weekend. Topics covered included: what mindfulness is and looks like; implementing mindfulness in schools; practices and programs that support social and emotional learning; mindfulness practice with at-risk youth; and using evidence from neurobiology to support the practice of mindfulness.

Q: What did you find most helpful and inspiring?

A: I found it most helpful to learn about different practices that work in other educational settings. It was also important to me to gain more knowledge about the science behind mindfulness, so that other people can understand it better from a scientific, factual perspective. I enjoyed learning about mindfulness work and its results with at-risk youth, and was able to connect it to my students.

Q: I often see the recommendation that those who want to teach or share mindfulness, practice it themselves. I’m guessing you may have heard something like that at Omega.

A: Yes, there was a definite mention of the importance of practicing personal mindfulness. They felt that in order for the students to buy into it, it had to be something that the teacher believed in or practiced regularly. Almost like a ripple effect. Something was said to the effect of, if anything, personal mindfulness practice would help the student climate because modeling and the energy that is put off by the teacher greatly affects the classroom environment. So in a way, start with yourself and build slowly into them.

Q: Can you offer a sense for what an average day in your classroom is like without mindfulness activities?

A: As a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom for students with behavioral and emotional challenges, an average day can be very stressful. Every day is different, depending on the circumstances and what emotional states the students are in. We encounter many behavioral / emotional “meltdowns” that can include aggressiveness. We teach a lot of social skills and academics, depending on what individual kids need most.

Q: Please share one or more examples of ways you have used principles of mindfulness in the classroom.

A: Twice a day, we incorporate an activity called Quiet Time. During this time, the lights are shut off and relaxing music is played. Students can choose to sit in a bean bag and relax or draw to get themselves centered. The students are aware that this activity is meant to help them refocus, calm their bodies and minds, and bring the energy of the room to a neutral place. They are aware that these activities help them perform and focus on their academic and social tasks throughout the day.

Also, we teach students different mindfulness practices to use when they are experiencing, or before an increase in, anxiety and aggression, in order to get them to develop their own coping skills in highly stressful situations.

Q: Dealing with anxiety and aggression! Can you give an example of that?

A: We show them how to take deep breaths properly and tell them to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles” ten times. It’s very simple but can work very well as they focus on their breathing and how it affects the way they feel.

Q: What do you notice in your students during and after the use of mindfulness-based activities?

A: We notice a change in the energy of the classroom. The energy of the students and classroom becomes calmer, more peaceful, more focused and productive. The students’ energy and anxiety levels often go to a more neutral place, rather than really high or really low.

Q: Have you had direct feedback about it from the students?

A: Students give feedback through their actions and with their words. Some students have said that they like it because it calms them down and the quiet helps them relax.

Q: What advice would you give to other teachers who might like to pursue this?

A: Start out small and at a slow pace. See what works and what doesn’t work. Adjust different activities to the needs of the students.

Q: What are your “next steps,” if any?

A: I’d like to learn more about more activities that worked for students who have similar challenges as my students. It would also be nice to touch base with other educators who are incorporating this work into their classrooms.

 

*This interview was lightly edited, with Jenna’s approval.