For autistic and neurodivergent individuals, stress, anxiety, sensory overwhelm, and difficulties with focus and sleep are common experiences in daily life. And while it’s well known that mindfulness practices can be incredibly beneficial in relieving these challenges, a one-size-fits-all approach is not helpful and, in some instances, can actually be harmful.
That’s why it’s important to acknowledge that mindfulness practices can and often will look different from person to person, so that we can ensure these powerful practices are accessible for autistic and neurodivergent people.
With this mindset, rather than concerning ourselves with what it looks like for others or how it “should” be done, we can listen to our own bodies and experiences and see what modifications and accommodations we need to discover what truly works for us—whether through mindful movement, grounding practices, breathwork, meditation, or anything else that nurtures and supports our well-being.
If the idea of sitting makes your skin crawl, active practices including yoga, dance, qigong, or walking meditation can help in finding quiet by encouraging your mind to be in the present moment because you need to pay attention to what you’re doing. Explore mindful movement practices that interest you and learn what feels most supportive for your needs.
Practicing an active body scan can also be a great tool, especially if you find that you tend to dissociate or feel disconnected from your body. With gentle movements, you become more aware of sensations in the body. Here’s a practice you can try and see if it’s helpful for you.
Active body scan
- Find a comfortable seat. Take a few breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth. Then try to breathe in and out through the nose if you can.
- Starting with the neck, bring your chin down towards your chest as you breathe out. Breathe in, and as you breathe out bring your right ear towards your right shoulder. Breathe here, then as you breathe out bring your chin back down towards your chest. Breathe in, and as you breathe out bring your left ear towards your left shoulder. Breathe here, then as you breathe out bring your chin back down towards your chest. If it feels okay for your body, you can take a few gentle neck rolls, circling one direction 3-5 times, then the other direction 3-5 times. If not, you may prefer to continue moving with semi-circles from shoulder to shoulder, 3-5 times each side.
- Now to the shoulders. Lift the shoulders forward and up as you breathe in, then back and down as you breathe out. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Now to the wrists. Circle your wrists one direction 3-5 times, then the other direction 3-4 times.
- Now with your breath, bring the arms out and up overhead as you breathe in, then let the arms float back down by your sides as you breathe out. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Now, reach your arms overhead as you breathe in, and as you breathe out take a gentle twist to your right, place your hand on the floor or chair just behind you, your left hand on your right knee. Take a full breath here, then repeat on the left side.
- You can finish here, or if are in a space where you can lay down on your back, come to lay down and bring your hands to your knees. Make circles with the knees in one direction 3-5 times, then the other direction 3-5 times.
- Bring your arms down by your sides, keeping the legs up in a tabletop position, and circle the ankles one way 3-5 times, then the other direction 3-5 times.
- Rest the feet on the earth, knees bent and drawing towards each other, arms by your side, or resting somewhere that is comfortable on your body. Take a few more deep breaths here.
Grounding practices might be beneficial for connecting you with all the senses and helping with self-regulation. Some people find journaling or recording a voice memo stream-of-consciousness style helpful to release what’s causing worry and help to feel grounded and more at ease. There are also many grounding techniques that you can explore and see what works for you. Here are a couple of grounding techniques you can try, especially in moments when you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
- The 54321 grounding technique uses all five senses. Here’s how you can try it.
- Notice and name five things you can see.
- Now, notice and name four things you can touch.
- Now, notice and name three things you can hear.
- Now, notice and name two things you can smell.
- Finally, notice and name one thing you can taste.
- The pretzel technique developed by Linda Harrison is a calming practice that you can do in just two minutes. It can be like a big hug for the body and allow your nervous system to downregulate. If you’d like to try it, here’s what to do.
- Set a Time Timer for two minutes.
- Cross your right arm over your left arm, with your palms facing each other and thumbs down.
- Clasp your fingers together, bending your elbows slowly and turning your hands down until they are up and against your chest.
- Cross your right leg over your left leg.
- Now, breathe deeply until the timer is up.
- Set the timer for two minutes and do the other side, folding into a pretzel and breathing deeply until the timer is up. Release.
Breathing practices can help you to feel calmer, reduce anxiety and sensory overwhelm, and improve focus, but everyone responds differently. Many neurodivergent individuals find simple, down-regulating breathing practices like diaphragmatic breathing (deep belly breathing) most supportive but feel free to explore what works for you. Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing if you’d like to give it a try.
Diaphragmatic breathing (deep belly breathing)
- Find a comfortable seat or lay down on your back.
- Bring your awareness to your breath as you breathe in and out through the nose.
- Place your hands below the rib cage, where you will be able to feel the diaphragm (the large dome-shaped muscle below the lungs) as you breathe.
- Breathe in slowly, feeling the hands rise as the diaphragm and the muscle between the ribs contract.
- Breathe out slowly, feeling the hands drop back down as the diaphragm and rib muscles relax.
- Continue for 5 to 10 rounds, breathing in and out for a count of 4, and notice the sensation of the stomach expanding and releasing with each breath.
Breathwork is a great option for your toolkit as you can practice it almost anywhere! Start small and use the Time Timer to set a timer for one or two minutes before building up to a time period that works best for your needs and schedule.
Meditation is often the first suggestion for practicing mindfulness, and if it works for you, it’s a wonderful practice. However, it can also feel intimidating and be challenging (especially if the idea of sitting still makes your skin crawl!) and it’s not the only way to be more mindful in daily life.
That said, it’s a common misconception that meditation means you should have no thoughts, where in fact, thoughts are natural and expected. Mindfulness practices just offer a little space, a “gap” to learn to witness your thoughts, without judgment or attachment. This understanding of meditation can be helpful for beginners to realize that they are not “bad” at meditation, that learning to work with our thoughts and notice when we are spiraling is all part of it.
Movement, grounding, and breathwork practices can often be helpful to practice either before or in place of meditation. If you’d like to try a mindfulness meditation practice, here’s how to start.
- Set a timer for 1+ minutes, whatever you feel comfortable with.
- Find a comfortable seat, breathing naturally.
- As thoughts and emotions inevitably arise, acknowledge them with compassion and gentleness.
- Honor your body’s response, and know that it is your body’s way of releasing stress and tension.
- Bring your awareness back to the breath, every time.
- When the timer is up, take a cleansing breath in through the nose, and sigh out through the mouth.
A note for autistic and neurodivergent individuals: you also don’t need to sit completely still in absolute silence! If you need to move your body, have your eyes open or closed, stim, or have music in the background—know that it is all perfectly and okay.
For autistic and neurodivergent individuals, know that there are as many mindfulness practices and ways of being as there are ways of thinking. Find practices that work for you, make the modifications and accommodations that best serve your needs, and believe that you too can find a little ease and calm in your world.
Jodie Martin is a neurodivergent writer, yoga teacher (E-RYT 500, YACEP), and Ayurvedic wellness coach, specializing in health and well-being, personal growth, creativity, lifestyle, and sustainability.