While children on the autism spectrum take part in therapies focusing on behavioral, cognitive and social skills, yoga is an underused but growing intervention that can benefit kids with autism in multiple ways.
Yoga can help those with autism increase their ability to focus, calm overactive minds, and reduce anxiety. Yoga can also indirectly improve cognitive, communication and social skills.
In yoga, students are imitating the movements of the instructor. Imitation and joint attention, two skills used in yoga, have been shown to be early indicators of how well children with autism will learn language and other skills. Joint attention occurs when children use eye gaze or gestures such as pointing to communicate with others. Imitation is considered critical in learning cognitive and social skills.
In a study published in the International Journal of Yoga in Jan. 2010, children with autism who participated in yoga improved their imitative skills, eye contact and non-verbal communication. Imitation increased in the areas of gross motor skills, vocalization, complex movements, oral-facial movements, and breathing exercises.
A significant problem children with autism often have is a short attention span, which results in an inability to concentrate and stay on topic. One of the goals of yoga is to calm children whose minds are constantly going in different directions.
Yoga can also help children who easily become anxious and frustrated become more relaxed. For children with sensory integration disorders, calming the mind can reduce outside distractions.
Taking deep breaths and holding poses while remaining quiet can help calm children. Staring at an item such as a ball or a picture for a minute while taking deep breaths can improve concentration.
The final pose in a yoga class, shavasana, relaxes the mind and the body by having students lie down quietly for a few minutes. Most autism therapies do not have an equivalent practice.
Children with autism often feel comfortable following routines, so another benefit of yoga is that most classes go through a series of similar poses week after week.
Those with autism often possess poor motor skills and problems with balance and proprioception, meaning a lack of self-awareness of where the body is in space. Yoga can improve these areas while increasing flexibility and muscle tone, which are often low in children with autism.
Yoga classes for special needs children are increasing, but yoga may be new to many schools and therapy programs.
Parents can suggest that schools incorporate after school yoga programs or short yoga sessions during breaks in classes. Another possibility is for parents to get together with parents of several similarly skilled students and request that yoga studios hold classes for kids with autism. In this case the yoga studio doesn’t have to worry about a dearth or an overflow of students.
Yoga teachers often give private lessons anyway, so they may be willing to do semi-private lessons or small classes with anywhere from two to about six students.
Yoga classes for children with autism should ideally be shorter than regular classes, such as 30-45 minutes as opposed to an hour or longer, at least until students get adjusted to yoga.
But how can children with autism effectively participate in yoga classes, which require a certain level of focus and relaxation, attributes that many kids on the spectrum lack?
Sometimes a child with autism can attend a yoga class with developmentally typical children, if the kids in the class are a few years younger than the student with autism. In these situations, it is often best for the child to have a parent or therapist shadowing him. In special needs classes, many children will also benefit from one-on-one aides.
For children with autism, the complicated names of poses should be made easy to understand. Some are already easy to follow such as tree, mountain, down dog, and cat poses. Labeling more of them this way, as animals or objects from nature, can make the experience more kid-friendly.
Occasionally using music or guiding children to participate in an interactive game at least once per class can help them remain engaged.
Encouragement can have a major impact on the success of students. Negative statements can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, emphasizing the child’s accomplishments can work wonders for students’ confidence.
Some interruptions from the child are to be expected. When shadowing a child with autism in a yoga class, it is usually best to provide positive reinforcement as much as possible, while redirecting the child to follow the instructor’s directions when she gets distracted. Taking a break or two during class may help, and preparing the child by practicing at home should give her more confidence.
If joining a yoga class or participating in a semi-private lesson is too ambitious, teachers and therapists can practice yoga with students for several minutes before teaching sessions and during breaks to prepare children better for learning.
Children who cannot yet participate in yoga classes can also do yoga at home with parents, who can demonstrate poses with yoga cards.
Taking deep breaths, doing yoga poses or exercises, or taking breaks are always excellent strategies for kids to use when they get upset.
Integrating yoga with some of the many interventions available for children with autism can help prepare kids for learning cognitive, social and life skills by improving focus and relaxation, decreasing anxiety, and practicing imitative abilities.
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