Yoga for Children with Autism: A Natural Match

Brian has autism. He is ten years old, but in many ways his six-year old sister, Lydia, is his model for behavior. They come to yoga class together and Brian follows his sister’s lead, hissing and stretching into cobra pose, squatting like a frog, and stretching forward toward his toes. He loves to make up his own yoga stories.

His favorite part of yoga is meditating and singing affirmations. “I am happy, I am good” rings out enthusiastically, getting louder as he continues. Vocal modulation is not easy for Brian, but no one minds. He is happy. He is learning self-regulation through the development of awareness that is a natural by-product of yoga practice. And, most importantly, he is learning to be himself.

I visited Brian in his session with speech-language pathologist Linda Hagood in Austin, Texas where I was teaching a Radiant Child Yoga training course. Linda had taken my course some years before and has had remarkable success using yoga with her children who have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), like those with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Brian, for example, has memorized much of my book Fly Like A Butterfly: Yoga for Children, and voluntarily uses the chanting and breathing to calm down in school and at bedtime.

Linda offers this advice for parents who are seeking natural help for their children: “For children like Brian, whose autism profoundly impacts communication and social opportunities, yoga sessions can provide a very special time to share energy and pleasure with family and friends. ‘Time for yoga’ can be ‘time together’ for the child whose primary challenge is finding love, friendship and intimacy.

“Brian and others with autism often struggle with the dynamics of conversation and complex team sports,” Linda continues, “but can grasp the importance of connecting to their family and friends during the ritualistic sequence of the yoga routine.”

People sometimes ask me why children should do yoga. Twenty years ago, that question was most likely asked about martial arts. Now there are classes for children at martial arts studios around every corner. And, like martial arts, yoga develops many wonderful qualities in children. Beside the obvious benefits of exercising the physical body, yoga sharpens the child’s ability to calm down and focus. It cultivates confidence and self-discipline. Many find that yoga, when practiced regularly, helps children become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. From this awareness, changes and growth in new and positive directions can blossom.

“Yoga can sometimes be the first context in which children with autism learn the joys of shared reference, imitation, and having fun together,” says Linda. “For some families, it is the first or only activity they can all do together.”

More and more professionals who work with SPD – often present in autism – as well as learning disabilities and ADHD are being trained in children’s yoga with great results. There is a natural affinity between these children and yoga, since yoga addresses the whole child, including the brain/body connection. Yoga also works to strengthen and organize the nervous system, which is essential for children with special needs.

Here are some of the aspects that are included in a yoga practice and their therapeutic benefits for these children (and adults):

1.  Mantra (Yoga sounds): Use of vibration and vocalization is calming and helps to focus attention. Encourages development of language and the physical ability to speak. Helps establish eye contact and interactions.

2.  Pranayama (Breath awareness): Deep breathing has a calming effect. Children are able to learn to use their breath to self-calm. Practicing breathing encourages the development of breath support for speech and postural stability. Children with hyperactivity or unstable activity levels respond beautifully to breath work and singing to calm and stabilize their activity levels. Styles of yoga that use movement and breath together—like in Vinyasa and many exercises in Kundalini yoga–are perfect.

3.  Asana (Postures and exercises): Help with all developmental aspects of gross motor skills, including general body awareness and position in space.

4.  Savasana (Deep relaxation): Even a few brief moments of quiet stillness can have beneficial effects for children who rarely stop moving. Use visualization techniques. Try rolling a foamy ball up and down the body slowly and with moderate pressure.

5.  Meditation (quiet/alert time): Improves attention span, the ability to sit still and concentrate. Helps remove anxiety and frees the mind from clutter so that it is more available for learning new things. Using yoga songs and affirmations are a good way to start, for example: “I am happy, I am strong.”

In my 33 years of teaching children’s yoga, I never fail to delight anew in the self-discoveries that children make through yoga. Children are so fresh and creative in their approach to life. And yoga encourages their creativity to flow, their fears, anger and sadness to release, their trust in the inner self to shine, their minds and hearts to be in synch. I give them the tools of awareness, and they express that awareness with such clarity and wisdom that I am in awe of the whole process. Quite often they have shown themselves to be my teachers!

Yoga Tips for Working With Children with Autism

·  Create a special time of the day for yoga. Take some time in the morning or evening, and follow it with a deep relaxation.

·  Begin by closing your eyes, and taking a few deep breaths to center yourself. Invite your child to do it with you, but don’t force it. If you have a “yoga sound” that you use for yoga, chant it a few times to begin. The sound will be calming to your child, and he or she may decide to join you once it is familiar.

· Children with autism need structure and predictability. Use visual cues to help your child focus on what pose or exercise you are doing. Create a yoga routine using either drawings on a white board (which you will erase as each exercise/pose is finished), or create a series of yoga pictures and show them in sequence. The photos in my book, Fly Like a Butterfly, make perfect visual cues for each pose or exercise.

·  When teaching something new – a new breathing practice for example – isolate that activity and practice it before adding it into a routine with other movements. 

·  Every child is different, and every child with autism is different, so be sure to follow the lead of your child, and create yoga activities that speak to what he or she needs. If your child is rocking, do the bumpy camel exercise (from Fly Like A Butterfly). If your child is running around the room, make running part of the yoga routine. Then gradually slow the run down to a tiptoe, and tiptoe back to the yoga mat.

·  Children, especially young ones or those with special learning needs, require repetition. Do the same yoga each time, with a little variation to add interest.

·  Catch your child doing something well, and make sure to encourage with a smile and praise.

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