Growing Interest in Benefits of Yoga for Kids With Autism
Autism affects 1 in 68 children with the number of diagnosed cases growing every year. There’s no cure in sight, but a growing number of organizations are using yoga and yoga therapy to help special needs children manage their symptoms.
Research increasingly shows what many of us know all along: yoga’s benefits aren’t just physical. Yoga and meditation been shown to help alleviate mood disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as boosting mood, creativity, and focus. Now, organizations like Pop.Earth and YogAutism are harnessing the power of yoga to help children with autism.
Autism is a developmental disability affecting millions of children worldwide. In the U.S. alone, 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed with the disease. Autism affects brain development in early childhood. People with autism usually have trouble with social interaction, communication (such as speech), and engage in repetitive, compulsive behaviors.
According to the autism advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, the number of autism cases has increased ten-fold in the last forty years. No one knows what causes the disease and there is no known cure. That leaves parents of children with the autism in a difficult situation. How can they help their children flourish, manage symptoms like anxiety, and improve body awareness?
That was the question Debbie Stone asked herself when her son was diagnosed with autism. Her response was to found Pop.Earth, a non-profit dedicated to providing affordable holistic services for children with developmental disabilities. Pop.Earth – and the affiliated Om Holistic Center for Autism and Developmental Disorders in New York – offers yoga, Reiki, NAET, art therapy, nutritional support, plus counseling for parents.
Stone says she was inspired by her own experiences of trying to afford treatment for her son.
“My son has tried many different treatments…The costs involved were mounting as was the pressure to maintain a manageable budget. I am still not quite sure how we managed to pay it all off but, it got me thinking about the many other families that wouldn’t be so lucky,” she writes on Pop.Earth’s website.
All of the services offered by Pop.Earth are holistic, which Stone defines as “an approach to treating the entire being as opposed to just treating the symptoms of the illness.” Stone finds that yoga, in particular, soothes her son’s anxiety and helps alleviate his rocking movements, a common behavior displayed by people with autism.
“When he’s on the yoga mat, those [symptoms] just disappear,” Stone said in an interview with the Denver Post. “It’s amazing to me.”
Stone hopes to open branches across the country to ensure that parents have access to low-cost holistic care. More information can be found at Pop.Earth’s website, Popearth.org.
Another non-profit providing yoga therapy to children with autism is Wisconsin-based YogAutism. Founded by yoga teacher Scott Anderson, who first encountered autism while working as a preschool teacher, he observed the difficulties many of the children had with sensory processing and anxiety, and wondered if the breathing techniques and meditative calm offered by yoga could help alleviate them.
“Because people with autism have such different sensory experiences, their bodies often get stuck in a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response,” Anderson explains on YogAutism’s website. “The fight, flight or freeze response moves blood from the digestive organs to the skeletal muscles…Yoga helps a student’s body to get out of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, and to feel more relaxed and less anxious. When the body is no longer in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, blood returns to the core and the body can do its work of breathing and digestion.”
Currently, YogAutism offers 6-8 classes a week. Each student works one-on-one with a teacher, who guides them through a series of postures specially designed to help with breathing, digestion, and focus. YogAutism offers teacher training programs for yogis who are interested in getting involved with children with special needs.
The organization Yoga for the Special Child is headed up a group of yoga teachers who are experts in teaching yoga to children with developmental disabilities. Some of them, including founder Sonia Sumar, are also parents of children with special needs themselves. The organization offers teacher training around the world (their 2015 schedule includes classes in locations as diverse as Dubai, London, and Reno, Nevada), and Sumar has published a book called Yoga for the Special Child.
According to the organization’s website, the philosophy behind the Sonia Sumar method involves “[establishing] a strong bond with the child…and [meeting] the child on his or her own level.” This person-first method is crucial to working with a vulnerable population who often have difficulty voicing their concerns and needs.
A cure for autism might still be a long way away. But these yoga teachers are proving that a better, more comfortable life for children with special needs can be easily achieved.