An article on the benefits of Yoga for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
By Anna McColl
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (also known as ASD) is a range of highly complex, lifelong developmental difficulties which affect how a child (or adult) relates to and communicates with other people and how he or she sees the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that although two children with autism may have similar difficulties, it will be to different degrees of severity and are likely to show these with very different behavior.
The most common symptoms and characteristics of Autisms
- Difficulty with social communication and interaction. Some children are unable to communicate verbally
- Delayed motor skills
- Issues with sensitivity especially to noise and light
- Repetitive behavior such as flapping or headbanging
- Language delays or echoing what other people say, known as echolalia
- Low muscle tone
- Impaired coordination
- Anxiety and poor sleep
- Likes routine and finds it difficult to adapt to change
These symptoms may then cause low self esteem and lack of confidence and often children will be lonely as they find it more difficult to interact with other children and form friendships.
They do not naturally know how to behave in relation to the world around them, they can often feel or be made to feel as though they are doing something wrong. Yoga offers a structured, focused activity with no right or wrongs.
Children with Autism see the world as a mass of people and places that they find very difficult to make sense of. They struggle to or cannot understand other people’s emotions and may not be able to express their own, causing a lot of frustration which can lead to outbursts.
Facts about Autism
- From the Greek autos meaning “self,” autism literally means “alone”
- The cause of Autism is unknown but there is strong evidence to suggest that autism can be caused by a variety of physical factors, all of which affect brain development It is also suggested that genetic factors are responsible for some forms of autism.
- 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders and almost 5 times more boys (1 in 54) than girls (1 in 252).
- Some children with ASD have extraordinary talents in Music, Art or Maths, they are referred to as Autistic Savants.
Yoga and Autism
As the popularity of Yoga is rapidly increasing in the West it is also starting to become more and more popular as a coping tool to help children with ASD as it seems to be a suitable and effective activity that directly addresses both their emotional and physical symptoms.
Children with Autism often do not naturally know how to behave in relation to the world around them, they can often feel or be made to feel as though they are doing something wrong. Yoga offers a structured, focused activity with no right or wrongs.
Looking at how Yoga directly impacts on the characteristics of Autism in children
Social Communication and Interaction – the relaxation and calming techniques children learn in yoga can be a useful tool to help them self-regulate in social situations. This helps to build their self esteem and confidence which in turns helps them with interacting with other children and adults.
The child is likely to form a bond of trust and friendship with the teacher which may also aid in shaping relationships with other adults or children
Delayed Motor Skills – Practicing asana helps increases muscle tone, develops balance and stability and improves over all body awareness and self regulation. Sequences and transitions between poses could also help with coordination and the development of motor skills.
Hyperactivity – the breathing techniques and deep relaxation that a child learns in yoga can help to bring calm. Children can use the techniques to calm themselves and self regulate in situations outside of the yoga class.
Again relaxation and deep breathing directly help with anxiety issues which may in turn allow for improved sleep. Mantra CD’s can be used in relaxation and also to help aid sleep as the sounds will be associated with calm and peaceful relaxation.
Chanting can help a child find their voice and encourage improvements in Language delays. Children respond to music and singing. Chanting opens the throat and encourages deeper controlled breathing and once a child learns a particular chant their confidence will increase.
For children that respond to routines, Yoga offers an orderly and consistent activity which can become part of their weekly schedule. Repeating postures in the same order every week will increase confidence as they grow to know the sequence and what is coming next.
Preparing for yoga
As every child is different and will have different needs it is important to start slowly and for the teacher get to know and connect with the child and their needs. They will need to form a bond and trust with them before even learning asana, this may take 1 session or it may take weeks. One child may be able to move through an entire sequence within a session or two and it may take another, weeks of massage, chanting and stories before they feel ready. It is important to be patient and adhere to the child’s needs and when they are ready they will participate.
Children with high energy may need to only practice seated and grounding postures to begin with to soothe the nervous system.
Ideally a regular space and a regular time should be made for yoga with mats set up in the same place. A space with low lights, plain walls and nothing around that will cause distraction is best.
In a group class it is important to have assistance and ideally one teacher or assistant per child.
Generally children with ASD tend to learn visually so as well as demonstrating and moving with students, the teacher may like to use Yoga cards or other visual tools.
Useful preparatory tools are massage and music – most children respond well to music and stories, and massage is soothing and calming.
Example class designed for children suffering ASD
Simple warm ups – counting fingers, side stretching, seated twists, tapping the body all over to awaken awareness of the body.
Pranayama – Breathing techniques will slowly start to strengthen the nervous system and improve concentration, increase breathing and lung capacity and serve as a useful tool outside of the yoga classroom to calm the system.
- Lions Breath – roar like a lion.
- Kaphalabhati breathing
- Simple Anuloma viloma
- Brahmari – buzz like a bee
Sun Salutations – These should be introduced only when the child is ready and after they have learnt the standing asana.
Standing Poses – Warrior 2 and Utthita Trikonasana are great for strengthening the legs and ankles and making a child feel strong and grounded.
Forward Bends – Seated forward bend (pashimotanasana), Standing forward bend (uttanasana) or childs pose (balasana) – forward bends help to quiet the system and are calming. Particularly good for calming the nervous system of a hyperactive child and also for anxiety.
Backbends – Cobra (bhujangasana) and Bow Pose (dhanurasana) can be very accessible and fun. Backbends open the heart centre, increase positive moods and open the lungs help increase lung capacity. The teacher can support the child in these postures as they may not initially have the strength to come up themselves and will they feel safer and help to build the feeling of trust.
Balancing – tree pose, excellent for helping the child to find balance and to increase concentration. If in a group class the students can be encouraged to stand in a circle and hold hands adding an element of working together.
Spinal Twists – seated twists and supine spinal twists to tone the spine and detoxify the organs and increase mobility of the spine.
Savasana – deep relaxation, may be good to include massage and soothing music.
Yoga in Programmes for Children with Autism
Get Ready To Learn is a researched and evaluated classroom yoga curriculum created by Anne Buckley-Reen, that prepares students of all abilities for learning. Get Ready To Learn uses yoga postures, breathing techniques and relaxation in a 20 minute sequence every morning before school activities start.
Implemented in 2008 in New York City special needs classrooms it is now used in 20 US states, 500 New York City Classrooms and is also now being implemented in the UK.
A 2012 study was published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy found yoga helped improve school performance and sustained attention in children with autism. The Get Ready To Learn programme was conducted in an NY school for 16 weeks and students behaviour was measured before and after showing significant impact on key classroom behaviours.
The Special Yoga Centre in London put together a monitoring and evaluation of the GTRL Programme which showed that more than 68% of the children involved in the programme are showing improvements in one or more of attention, performance, ability to transition, self regulation and communication.
“We have found that children with ASD/developmental challenges, experience the following significant improvements by practising yoga regularly:
Improved sleep, self-regulaton, concentration, ability to transition between activities, behaviour, communication, toileting, awareness, well-being, gross motor skills, balance, coordination and mood” – The Special Yoga Centre.
Yoga to help children with Autism is still a relatively new concept, so there hasn’t been a lot of research recorded, but judging by the number of organizations beginning to use Yoga as a therapeutic tool, it seems as though it is having very positive effects. Yoga for children has been popular for some time now so it seems to make sense that it is also being used for children with Autism. There are also an increasing number of specialist trainings becoming available;
Samadhi Sun in New Jersey offer a level 1 and 2 Yoga for Autism teacher Training as well as workshops for families and teachers of Individuals on the Autistic Spectrum.
The Yoga for the Special Child programme and training founded by Sonia Sumar in Brasil is now also being taught in New York, London, India, Dubai, California, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Alaska, Denmark, Bahamas, Spain and Australia.
Having successfully used yoga to combat the stress of their own busy lives, Dion and Stacey Betts discovered its potential for their son who has Asperger Syndrome. They wrote the book “Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” which is fully illustrated step by step guide for parents and carers wishing to use simple techniques to calm the symptoms of ASD.
With an increase of 78% in Autism rates from 2002 to 2008 and no known cure it is important to find methods which will assist children and provide them with tools to cope and develop.
What makes Yoga particularly effective not only helps to provide calm, but actually provides the child with tools and techniques that he or she can then take home and use themselves. The three key techniques being;
Pranayama – helps with self regulation and self awareness and regular breathing
Asana – builds strength and flexibility. Increases balance, coordination and helps to develop motor skills and increase concentration and attention span
Relaxation – helps soothe the nervous system, promoting calm and stillness and reduces anxiety
Yoga seems to be a promising therapy as it directly addresses the symptoms of Autism in children. It helps to increase body awareness, improve motor skills, helps with transition and to develop self esteem and communication skills. All of these skills are vital in encouraging children on the Autistic Spectrum to integrate better in to the world around them.
By Anna McColl – Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate and Intern