A lot has been written about the benefits of meditation for people in general and also for those on the autism spectrum. Recently I have had three very different guided mediation experiences, which as an aspie (person with Aspergers) I reacted to quite differently than others. I thought it might be interesting for you to read about this and see how aspects of the Aspergers minds can have consequences that are hugely beneficial or quite bizarre with the best intentions of everyone concerned.
As background, I am Buddhist and I meditate off and on and have done for over 20 years. I am familiar with a range of Buddhist meditation styles and find them both relaxing and focusing.
The first recent guided meditation was a complete non-event for me. The idea behind the meditation was to set a frame of mind that anxiety is ok. I do not have a particular issue with anxiety but I was quite a willing participant. However, I got stuck on the first two sentences of the meditation and then got distracted by dirt on the carpet and the people talking next door and the traffic outside…..
What was interesting was the first few sentences were clearly not an issue for anyone else. On being told make yourselves as comfortable as possible, I wanted to take my shoes off and curl up, but checking around saw no-one else shifted much. By the time I’d finished checking around the next sentence was done – I was meant to be making myself comfortable somewhere the I enjoyed being. Intellectually I understood I was meant to be envisaging this, but I was in a room in an office block, with my shoes on, on a semi-comfortable couch. Also I was stuck on the illogical language structure of making myself comfortable in an imaginary place, surely it should have been an instruction to imagine yourself in a place where you enjoy being.
I spend too many minutes obsessing about the language before noticing the dirt on the carpet and then my mind was off listening to the environment and examining all the visual textures and contrasts around. This resulted in me mishearing (I know I misheard it because I was provided with a recording at the end) the key point of the meditation which seemed to be that “the prize for anxiety is a good plan” – it was price not prize….
As I plan everything to the nth degree I drifted off at this point and spent the rest of the guided meditation time trying to look as if I was meditating and not staring at the dirt or the clock or anyone else in the room!
The next guided meditation was at theatre group. I have done this particular mediation a number of times in this context and it has been slightly modified to prevent my predictable reaction of ‘uggggghhhhh’ to the idea of my head being a balloon floating up to the ceiling. I am a very visual aspie and visualising my head as a balloon going through the ceiling had freaked me out, so it was modified to up to. Plus the words imagine and not literally were sprinkled into the instructions. I am now able to participate with minimal discomfort and a growing awareness of how my body moves in space and how it is connected.
The final meditation was a religious/spiritual mediation called open heart mediation which aims to connect people to their hearts and therefore to experience joy. It was held in an overheated old building and led by a kind and welcoming person I had never met. Usually heat makes me incredibly grumpy but I left this meditation relaxed and joyous. It was quite amazing. The meditation kept prompting the participants to feel their heart by laying their left hand on their heart whilst visualising light and joy filling their hearts and minds. Relaxing music was playing at the same time. For me the combinations of sounds and visualising meant I was not distracted by the heat or the noises outside the building. I will certainly go back to this again in the future.
The middle meditation reminded me of being at school with a teacher who insisted her class (including me) did a guided mediation which involved us imagining lying on a beach with the waves lapping at our feet. This freaked me out every time as I worried I was going to be drowned by the incoming tide! Now that I know I have Aspergers, I can understand why I freaked out and I can see how the good intentions of others – to help people relax – can go so wrong! For some people imagining can be a benign activity, for myself and many others on the spectrum our imagination is Technicolor stereo-sound and it feels real. Because my teacher talked about the waves lapping over my feet I extrapolated this to the logical outcome of the tide coming in… clearly one should not sleep on the beach at the shore line when the beach is coming in and suggesting I imagine this is not going to induce relaxation!
This literal interpretation of language is not so much of an issue in chanted or breathing mediations which are purely about focusing and/or clearing the mind. Mediations that aim to relax or combat anxiety often use imagery or events that ‘typical’ people find relaxing. However, they also seem to rely on the relaxing effect of a soft voice and there is not the attention to detail in vocabulary and these two things can make them less effect for aspies and others on the spectrum. The soft voice may be competing with a large range of other external stimuli that a neurotypical person will automatically filter out as they seem to be able to easily prioritise the human voice over all other external stimuli. For me, the voice is heard in conjunction with all that other external stuff and may be lost in there.
However, the linguistic detail is where I and many others on the spectrum can get stuck – obsessing over a nonsensical phrase or an illogical image. Neurotypical people seem to be able to gloss over these types of errors to ‘go with the flow’ and accept the essence of the meditation. I know a number of aspies that feel the visualisations they are asked to do as part of mediating and these can be quite distressing unless tailored specifically for those on the spectrum. An example of this is not from a mediation but a phrase used to describe my dog snuggling up to me on the sofa (said by my sensible and non spectrum partner) – he (the dog) would get under your skin if he could. To my partner this just indicates how the dog snuggles so close that there is maximum contact between dog and human, to me this sounds and indeed feels horrendous, the dog will force his body through the skin on my arms etc…..urghhhhhhhhhhh
I know intellectually this is not what is meant and after the nth time of it being said I can translate it to; he is such a snuggler. This has no negative connotations for me – but it may to someone who dislikes touch!
I am not sure why the last mediation was so powerful, it was not from my religion, the guided part of the mediation was a mp3 recording played back over a phone so the quality was poor and in addition the accent was quite strong so I couldn’t tell what was being said all the time. I think it was because the instructions at the beginning were so clear – it is ok to drift off to sleep, it is ok to think about other things or move, but just return to hand on heart and visualising the light and the joy entering your heart and mind. These instructions were clear with no yuck factor, no linguistic errors for me to fixate on.
If you do any guided meditations with anyone (adult or child) on the spectrum please make sure that you use imagery THEY are comfortable with and a language structure that makes sense. Also let them know that if they are distracted by the environment or themselves it is ok and to just return to listening and participating and let go of the distracting thoughts.
Oh an please don’t set them up to be drowned – no sleeping on the shore line when the tide is coming in!