Why the Practice of Mindfulness Might Backfire on Autistic People

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Like many autistic people, I have always been a highly anxious person. I started having panic attacks at 15 years old, and I’ve probably had PTSD for even longer. Life as an undiagnosed autistic person is traumatizing, full stop.

Living in a world that was too bright, too loud, too itchy, and too confusing meant there was no way I was getting out of childhood without scars and deep ones at that.

I’ve been in therapy since I was 7 years old. Yep, you read that right. The adults in my life were forever trying to figure out what was “wrong with me” as a kid, and I, for my part, was always trying to figure out what was wrong with them.

(Haha! I love that about myself. I was one of those autistics who thought everyone else was messed up, and I was the sane one.)

Anyway, in the course of my lifetime of on-and-off therapy, I’ve been taught and encouraged to practice mindfulness quite often. If you’re not sure what mindfulness practice is, it’s the purposeful attempt to live fully in the moment with all 5 senses tuned in completely to your immediate environment.

This is supposed to center you in the reality of the here and now, reduce anxiety, and help you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

Here’s why I don’t recommend it for many autistic people:

In order for us to survive in a neurotypical world that, as I mentioned above, is already too loud and overwhelming, we often have to “check out” throughout the day to cope. I call it taking sensory breaks. I just sort of go glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, and it’s like I’ve gone into power save mode. I’m also half in and half out of about a dozen scenarios in my head in a world of my own creation at any given moment. It’s the only way I can live and function in this world without ending up back in the psych ward (I had a nervous breakdown in 2014).

Ergo, since the world is already overwhelming to me, bringing all of that sensory information into sharp relief by focusing on it is usually the last thing I want to do to relieve anxiety.

Let me give you some examples of how I feel when I try to practice mindfulness:

Mindful Eating

When someone suggests mindful eating, they talk about “slowing down and smelling the food, tasting the food, savoring the food, and putting your fork down in between bites”. Oh, dear Lord, the anxiety I feel just typing that!!

Here’s why this doesn’t work for me:

  • Smelling food is gross to me.

I’m very sensitive to smells. I don’t smell things before I taste them, and I don’t walk into a room where someone is cooking and say, “Mmmm, that smells good”. I want to avoid the smelling part of eating whenever possible. Even if it does smell good, I don’t like most smells, and I do not go out of my way to breathe them in.

  • Tasting food can be triggering to me.

This is probably more a PTSD thing than an autistic thing on my part, but slowing down to taste food can be very triggering for me.

To me, food serves one purpose: To stop me from having the annoying and anxiety-producing physical feeling of hunger.

If it tastes good, awesome, but it’s not my primary focus. Also, it was not my experience as a young person. We were very poor, and we had to eat whatever canned, boxed, or frozen food we could afford, and believe me, it was nothing you wanted to savor.

For other autistic people, the tastes and textures of certain foods can be overwhelming, so we like to avoid that experience, not seek it out. Some of us may be hungry, but we want to get the experience of eating over with as quickly as possible either because of sensory overload or we just want to get back to whatever it is we were doing and once again be temporarily and blissfully unaware that we are living in a needy and demanding body.

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  • I always feel like I’m starving.

Savoring food? Oh, no. Not for me. Unless it’s dark chocolate, which I will savor, everything goes down my throat with the rapidity of a desperate, starving person who has been wandering the desert for a week. I have tried slowing down and eating mindfully, and it gave me a panic attack. I just can’t do it. Again, in my case, I’m sure that has more to do with trauma than being autistic, but I do know that many autistic people struggle with digestive issues that can result in poor nutritional uptake no matter how good our diets are. I inhale food, and there is no force on the planet that will ever get me to stop. In fact, the more food I have in my mouth at one time, the “safer” I feel. (Not sure how to explain that one, but it’s always been that way with me. Possibly because having physical needs of any kind makes me anxious?)

Where Mindfulness Has Helped Me

Now, there are times when mindfulness actually does help me. For example, I also have OCD, and it can be very helpful to remind myself that I’m in the moment when driving, taking a walk, showering, sipping a cup of tea, etc., when I feel myself becoming anxious about a future event.

Furthermore, when my PTSD has been triggered, mindfulness can help remind me that I’m here and now, not back where I was in the thick of trauma and abuse. I’ve actually used mindfulness techniques such as touching the surface of the chair I’m sitting in and looking around the room to see where I am while repeating, “You’re safe, you’re home. It’s (name year), and you are home” over and over until I can calm down.

The Takeaway

The bottom line with mindfulness practice is I truly believe it is much more suited to neurotypical brains. That said, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with it depending on how and when I use it.

If you’ve been trying to get your autistic loved one to practice mindfulness or meditation to ease their anxiety, but it’s making them more anxious, what I’ve written here should give you an idea of why that might be happening.

Even if mindfulness, meditation, or other practices have worked for you or other autistic people you know, never force your autistic loved one to use these techniques if they are causing more anxiety. Instead, work together with your loved one to figure out what does comfort and soothe (such as stimming, being alone in a dark room, playing video games to decompress) and honor it.

Even if it seems “unconventional” to you, the ultimate goal is to reduce the anxiety, not conform to standards that don’t work for our neurology, therefore further traumatizing us.

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