Mindfulness and Developmental Disabilities

Man doing mindfulness exercises

Increasing Understanding of Mindfulness Intervention

In a recent attempt to add to the knowledge base of effective use of mindfulness intervention in treating emotional and behavioral issues in individuals with developmental disabilities (DD), two researchers conducted a literature review of previous studies meeting the description (Hwang & Kearney, 2012). Mindfulness refers to the “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, p. 145). Its practice is used in several different therapeutic approaches, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Therapy (CT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in the treatment of emotional and behavioral issues. Mindfulness is also employed in treatment of DD with concurrent mental health concerns. The researchers highlight one particular study that demonstrated the impact of mindfulness in reduction of aggressive behavior, inappropriate sexual arousal, anxiety, and obsessive thinking (Singh, Whaler, Adkins, & Myers, 2003). In reviewing the findings of the studies and compiling the results, Hwang & Kearney (2012) are helping clinicians enhance their understanding of effective implementation of mindfulness in treatment of maladaptive behavior associated with developmental, intellectual, and learning disabilities.


Exercises with Physical and Mental/Emotional Components

The review analyzed 12 intervention studies that directly applied to mindfulness for individuals with diagnoses of DD. The results of the review indicate that mindfulness was effective when implemented in both the physical and mental experience. For example, an exercise called Soles of the Feet (SoF) involved having a client shift mental focus from an emotional situation or mental state to a “neutral part of one’s body,” like the soles of the feet (Hwang & Kearney, 2012, p.324). The mental mindfulness practice included an “awareness of the transient nature of thoughts, which allows the practitioner to realize the futility of attaching to or identifying with them” (Hwang & Kearney, 2012, p. 324).


Building Skills and Confidence in Individuals with DD

The investigators also found that mindfulness serves two functions: prevention and self management (Hwang & Kearney, 2012). In effect, mindfulness can be practiced in session between a client and clinician in order to neutralize potential anger in the future (i.e., to prevent possible outbursts or inappropriate aggression, anger, anxiety, etc.). Through practice, clients’ confidence and skills in self-management are honed for use in excitable situations likely encountered in the future. Most studies reviewed indicated that significant time was spent in clinical settings training clients to observe and, when necessary, re-direct thoughts. The researchers note that, depending on the severity of DD, more time may need to be allocated to instruction on the methods of mindfulness. In essence, each case and implementation of mindfulness exercises must be tailored to the specific needs of each client.





Hwang, Y., & Kearney, P. (2012). A systematic review of mindfulness intervention for individuals with developmental disabilities: Long-term practice and long lasting effects. Research in Development Disabilities, 34(1), 314-326.


Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.


Singh, N., Wahler, R., Adkins, A., & Myers, R., (2003). Soles of the feet: A mindfulness-based self-control intervention for aggression by an individual with mild mental retardation. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24(3), 158-169.


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