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In our efforts to develop a premium science-based product, we continually scour the academic research world to inform our use of virtual reality in the therapy space. Dr. Sinan Turnacioglu, Floreo’s medical advisor, has written a helpful summary of one of the more notable papers we recently reviewed.

In the context of limited options for treatment of symptoms/behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in adolescents and adults, there is a need for more research into novel intervention strategies. Social skills programs and cognitive behavioral interventions targeting anxiety have shown promising results. Mindfulness-based relaxation strategies may target core deficits associated with autism spectrum disorder such as weak central coherence (difficulty processing and synthesizing external and internal stimuli) and cognitive flexibility (dealing with change and organizing one’s behavior), since mindfulness training supports management of uncertainty and maintaining an appropriate focus and response to the immediate environment.

In 2015 in the journal Autism, Dutch researchers published results from a study of mindfulness training for adolescents and young adults with ASD, delivered in parallel with a mindfulness program for their parents. Training consisted of nine weeks of 1.5 hour sessions delivered weekly, according to a standardized protocol which had previously been used with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “MYMind” sessions for adolescents and young adults focused on topics such as coping with change, dealing with feelings, bodily awareness, and self-control. Parents participated in Mindful Parenting training, also in accordance with a manualized curriculum. This curriculum primarily consisted of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR)/Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) meditation practices along with specific mindful parenting topics.

There were 23 adolescent and young adult participants initially enrolled, consisting of 17 boys and 6 girls and ranging in age from 11 to 23 years. Participants met Diagnostic Statistical Manual-Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for pervasive developmental disorder diagnoses including autistic disorder, Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified.

Study measures included adolescent self-reports consisting of the short version of the Autism Questionnaire (AQ), the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale-Adolescent version (MAAS-A), the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ), the Ruminative Response Scale (RRS), and the World Health Organization-Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5). Parents completed the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) in relation to their child’s ASD-related symptoms, and also self-reports including the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), Interpersonal Mindfulness in Parenting Scale (IM-P), the Parenting Stress Index-Competence Scale (PSI-C), and the WHO-5. Measures were collected pre-intervention, immediately post-intervention, and 9 weeks after the intervention concluded.

Results indicated a positive impact on adolescent and young adult quality of life self-report and rumination symptoms. Parents reported a positive effect on social responsiveness in their children and on their own mindfulness skills. Parental quality of life and parental stress were improved immediately after the intervention although these effects were not sustained at follow up.

Of note, attendance rates were high and dropout rates were low for this intervention, leading the authors to conclude that this mindfulness training is feasible to implement. This was a pilot study, and further research into the effects of this mindfulness intervention would be useful to recognize whether such a training program should be implemented more broadly to support coping skills in adolescents and young adults with ASD. Based on this and similar research published in research years, training programs based on mindfulness principles that is specifically designed for older children and young adults with ASD is worthy of further research to understand the impact such training can have on characteristics such as managing sensory overload, anxiety, and social engagement.

de Bruin, E. I., Blom, R., Smit, F. M., van Steensel, F. J., & Bögels, S. M. (2015). MYmind: Mindfulness training for Youngsters with autism spectrum disorders and their parents. Autism, 19(8), 906-914.