The practice of yoga for children with autism and other special needs teaches many skills but perhaps one of the most important elements of yoga for children with special needs is teaching them coping skills and how to respond to stress, tension, worry, anxiety and depression.
Many children with language processing difficulties and/or sensory integration dysfunction (difficulty with sensory processing) experience great levels of anxiety and sometimes depression. They can be in a constant state of heightened arousal or anxiety. When we are anxious we activate the sympathetic system of our nervous system. The sympathetic system is responsible for responding to threat or danger or a "perceived" threat or danger - the fight/flight response. When we are in a sympathetic state, the blood in our bodies flow to the larger muscles in our limbs, away from our internal organs to prepare us to flee or fight. Our heart rate increases and we typically exhibit chest breathing which can lead to anxiety attacks or hyperventlation. Being in a constant state of sympathetic arousal can negatively impact our heath, mood and behavior. We can develop digestive problems, irregular sleep patterns, tension in our muscles and joints , weakened immune systems, anger or agitation, difficulty coping, conflict with others, social withdrawal, OCD behaviors and a variety of other issues.
Teaching children specific breathing strategies and yoga poses to support them in activating the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest, relaxation and digestion supports them in reducing anxiety, releasing difficult emotions and tension in the body, developing healthier sleep patterns, improving digestion and optimal functioning in the body and improving mood and behavior. Children with autism and special needs can learn coping strategies through the practice of yoga so they may live calmer, happier, more peaceful and healthier lives.
- decrease anxiety and depression
- increase relaxation
- improve sleep
- support healthy digestion
- support healthy respiration
- reduce muscle tension
- reduce fatigue
- improve circulation
- therapeutic for thyroid conditions
- improve mood
- support positive behavior
- support sensory integration
- support language and communication
- support motor coordination
- improve fine/gross motor skills
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.