Mindfulness-Based Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Parents: Direct and Long-Term Improvements

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 11, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
A. Ridderinkhof1, E. I. de Bruin1, R. Blom2 and S. M. Bögels1,3, (1)Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands, (2)Child and adolescent psychiatric center Karakter, Zwolle, Netherlands, (3)Academic outpatient child and adolescent treatment center UvA minds, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience difficulties in social interaction, restrictive behavior patterns, and neurocognitive deficits. Also, children with ASD are more stressed and suffer more frequently than typically developing children from comorbid anxiety, depression, and attention problems. In addition, their parents experience increased parenting stress, which leads to mental health problems and deteriorated parenting behavior. Previous research shows that mindfulness-based programs could decrease mental health- and attention problems in various populations, and is hypothesized to improve social communication. A previous pilot study showed that a mindfulness-based program was beneficial for adolescents with ASD and their parents.

Objectives: In this study we investigated a mindfulness-based program for children with ASD and their parents. In doing so, we examined whether this intervention is beneficial for children with ASD with a broad age range, whether social communication problems and common comorbid problems are reduced, whether it is beneficial for their parents, and whether effects last up to one year later. Furthermore, on a neuropsychological level we explored whether children’s attention is improved.

Methods: Forty-five children referred with ASD, aged 8 till 19 years old, and their parents participated. The mindfulness-based program MYmind consisted of nine weekly sessions of 1.5 h with parallel sessions for children and parents. The program consists of meditation practices, educating theory, and inquiry of participants’ experiences. Repeated measures of children’s and parents’ social communication problems, emotional and behavioral functioning, mindful awareness, and of parenting were conducted pre-intervention, post intervention, 2-month follow-up, and 1-year follow-up. Children also completed the Attention Network Test (ANT) to index their alerting, orienting, and executive attention networks. In addition, children’s and parents’ experienced changes as reported on open-ended questions were explored qualitatively.

Results: Children’s social communication problems decreased over time, and their emotional and behavioral functioning improved. However, children did not report significant changes in mindful awareness. Results were inconsistent across occasions; improvements reported by children were most substantial at 2-month follow-up and only partly remained at 1-year follow-up, while all children’s improvements as reported by parents were present on all occasions. Parents reported about themselves improved emotional and behavioral functioning, improved parenting, and increased mindful awareness on all occasions. Parents’ social communication problems were only reduced at post intervention. Most improvements were supported by the themes emerging from the qualitative analysis. Preliminary results on the ANT showed an increase for the alerting score, a reduction for the executive score, and no change for the orienting score after MYmind.

Conclusions: This study suggests that children with ASD with a wide variety of ages and their parents can benefit from a mindfulness-based program by improving children’s ASD symptoms and common comorbid problems, parents’ mental health problems, parenting, and parental mindful awareness. Most improvements seem to last on the long term. However, differences in the attention network are conflicting. Overall, the results imply that a mindfulness-based program may support families in coping with the demanding consequences of ASD.