The Yoga of Autism

Yoga for autistic children
All of us have felt the magic of yoga. It is likely, if you are reading this article, that you are a believer. I am. I know the powers of yoga and have dedicated my life to helping others discover this power.

And I know that the magic of therapeutic yoga reaches into lives of people in diverse populations. Those with physical ailments, traumatic injuries, emotional imbalances or mental upsets can all come to realize the healing potential of yoga and its ability to empower them.

I have heard of football players bowing their heads in namaste, angry young men in drug rehab surrendering in savasana (corpse, or relaxation pose) and prison populations finding solace in yoga. I personally volunteer with Gabriel Halpren at Yoga Circle when he teaches young adults who have many forms of developmental disabilities. I have seen them transformed as Gabriel brings them into the world of yoga.

But autistic children? I must admit that even I wondered how–or if–autistic kids could find some peace on the yoga mat. My friend Tanya Sugarman is a drama teacher at the Lincoln School in Evanston and a longtime yoga practitioner. She told me of the difficulties in getting a small group of autistic children involved in drama and her decision to instead introduce them to yoga. She had already received the approval of the children’s main teacher, Karen Mahoney, and was busy getting mats donated and developing an appropriate sequence of asanas. I wondered how the program would work out.

Research asserts that autistic children are often withdrawn and self-absorbed, being more interested in objects than people. They are often engrossed in stereotypic behaviors and may show rage if these patterned activities are interrupted. How, then, would they respond to the demands of doing yoga postures? What would motivate them to stop their behavior patterns and listen to specific instructions on how to move their body? Could they be still long enough to benefit from savasana?

The incidence of diagnosed autism has risen sharply over the past 20 years; some estimates put the rate as high as one in 500 children. Yet I have found very few articles pertaining to experimentation with yogic training and autistic children. One program in Seattle maintained positive results with a yoga-based treatment called Integrated Movement Therapy; the children reportedly improved their balance and sociability as well as their communication and problem solving skills.

Karen Mahoney, the director of the autistic program, tells me that autistic children have a host of sensory needs that are difficult for others to understand. They are always in motion, engaged in inappropriate repetitive movements, which focuses them in their own world. But somehow yoga worked. “Because yoga was not gym class, or art class, or music class, the students had no preconceived ideas of how things should be. They seemed to go with the flow, and the calming effect has been great!”

I asked Tanya why she initially considered doing yoga with her group.
TS: “I have taught autistic students for the last five years at Lincoln School. Most of those years the more able students have been mainstreamed into my regular education classes. This year, we had students in the third through fifth grades that we thought would benefit from having their own separate class. I was trying to figure out how I could be most effective teaching students who communicate with varying degrees of clarity and who might have challenges conceptualizing, speaking and moving in the context of drama.

“I was reading the July-August YOGAChicago and I saw an article about the use of yoga with special needs students. I thought that since I had studied yoga for 26 years and taught drama for 22, I might be able to reach my autistic students more effectively through yoga than through drama. When I approached Karen Mahoney, who was new to Lincoln School, with my idea, she was very receptive and thought that yoga was worth trying. Neither of us expected the fantastic journey on which we were about to embark.”
Tanya then described some of her students and how they responded to the yoga program.

TS: “There are four students in the class. Raina and Aria are twin sisters that are quite different in behavior. Aria is the most consistently focused student in the class. She usually is right on task and stays that way during the entire class. Raina has probably made the most improvement. She is now willing and able to do yoga for the entire period if an adult is next to her gently reminding her what to do next.

“Marie Claire is the youngest member of the class. She has a great deal of natural athletic ability and has been trying to challenge herself physically since the yoga began with cartwheels, handstands, etc. Marie Claire loves contact with other students and always reaches out to hold her neighbors’ hands in savasana.

“Eric has had some health problems during the year. Some days all he can do is lay curled up on his yoga mat. On other days he can follow instructions, especially if an adult is there to help his body move in the desired ways.

“I was hoping to find a way to connect with the students in this class through yoga. I wanted them to be able to follow instructions, to learn the parts of their bodies, to work alongside their classmates and to enjoy moving their bodies.

“The response of my students was amazing. They learned so much more than the expectations I had set for them. On many mornings when I enter the classroom someone is having a temper tantrum or crying about something. Within ten minutes, the atmosphere has totally altered and students are calmly doing their asana practice! I remember one day when Marie Claire was having a very rough morning. She had been crying non-stop since before I came in the room and she wouldn’t try any of the postures, although usually she is right on task and does them all. Then I remembered one of my yoga teachers saying that no one can be sad while doing a backbend. The minute she did a backbend, her crying stopped and she was fine.

“I was amazed. In general, I would say that my students respond to yoga the way I do; they seem to yoke their bodies, minds and emotions together. They are more aware of their bodies and the movement of their bodies through space. They calm down. They respond better to each other and their teachers after yoga.”

Karen agreed with the success of the program.

KM: “Each day, students arrive upset by something and yoga offered a structured, focused activity that didn’t have a judgmental right/wrong component. The students always viewed themselves as successful and found their favorite positions.

“As the months went by, that strong calming effect became clear, not just something I ‘felt’ was happening. Not every time was successful. Some days, students brought more issues and confusion to the classroom. But if you know the kids, you’ll see that even on those days things are smoother than they would have been without yoga.

“Yoga has helped my students to think abstractly and metaphorically. Formerly, they thought trees had to be brown with green leaves, but after learning tree pose, I could say to them, ‘but when you were a tree.’ I feel that it broadened their thinking and raised it to a more conceptual level.
“This has been fascinating to watch and be a part of. We will continue the program next year. Although the group of students will change, the activity will again be part of the day, and I look for similar results. The wonderful calming effect brings peace to the classroom.”

The yoga mats seemed to become a safe space for the students. When they felt overwhelmed or upset at other times during the week, they would often get out their mats and start doing yoga themselves or just lie down on the mat. So it was a special moment when Tanya presented the twins their own mats to take home with them on the last day of yoga for the school year. The twins would be going on to middle school and no longer be a part of the program. Raina turned her cheek, asking Tanya for a kiss.

I felt so privileged that I had been allowed to come and observe. I had seen for myself how agitated and unhappy the students had been upon entering the classroom. They were slow to join in to the yoga session, but with the help and encouragement of the assistants, eventually everyone moved in harmony. It was wonderful to see the students making eye contact and smiling. By the end of class, they seemed pleased with themselves, happy and comfortable with their surroundings. Not the usual description of autistic children but perhaps an indication of the potential outcome of yoga and compassion in the classroom.

Reposted with permission. Carla Douros, RYT, is a Kripalu yoga teacher with a Ph.D. in Physiological Psychology. She teaches anatomy and physiology for yoga teacher trainings and is currently an apprentice with Gabriel Halpren, director of Yoga Circle, studying therapeutic yoga. More details at www.mindbodyandyoga.com.

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2 Responses to The Yoga of Autism

  1. i thought this was a fantastic article and have posted on to our facebook campaign (same name as website).

    Thank you for sharing this with us – I know that autistic children can benefit from this approach – ADHD also.

    Keep up the good work!

    Namaste

    Lorraine

    • admin says:

      Thank you for posting this to your Facebook page. Please send us any article or story where yoga or meditation has helped children. Our e-mail: info [at] mylifeyoga [dot] com

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