I recently purchased Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Dion and Stacey Betts. My son was quite reluctant to try this with me (because it sounded like “therapy”). I honored his request to not be bothered with it, but what I DID do was bring the book in his room and pretend to struggle with the poses myself, finally asking in an exasperated fashion if he could help show me what I’m doing wrong. It worked! Not only did he correct my moves, he hungrily kept asking, “Are there more in the book? Can we do another one? Do you still need help, Mom?” (Yes!)
You may think yoga is only for monks on the path to enlightenment (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all), but it is truly a well-kept secret to overall health and wellness. To steal the author’s perfect description in the book’s opening:
Yoga is a practice consisting of physical postures and breathing exercises that help to unite the body and mind. Yoga originated in India many centuries ago and is gaining great popularity throughout the world. Yoga’s benefits include stress reduction, inducing calm, muscle building, flexibility, and coordination.
So these are yoga’s amazing general benefits, but what about our children on the Autism Spectrum?
Aside from medical studies illustrating yoga as in effective treatment of neurological disorders and indicating that it increases motor performance of school children, the gains immediately related to physical and emotional symptoms of Autism are surprising.
Here are the top seven I found:
My child has low muscle tone. Trunk instability and low muscle tone affect not just coordination but stamina as well. The poses improve large muscle strength, which help increase the tone of their muscles. They also help mobility, which encourages confidence when joining peers in a physical activity.
Gross motor delay makes my child appear awkward. An odd gait and delay in gross motor skills make these children appear clumsy, often resulting in teasing and being picked last for team activities. Yoga poses help your child become aware of where their legs and feet are in relation to the rest of their body, which helps improve coordination.
What about missed milestones? It can be disheartening when your child seems to be missing out on what we consider typical activities for their age. My son cannot ride a bicycle, skateboard, and frankly he needs help with his “paperwork” after using the potty. When yoga poses are practiced consistently it allows children to feel more comfortable in their bodies, which carries over into all other aspects in their lives.
How does it help sensory issues? I’m confident we are all familiar the sensory processing issues that accompany most children on the Spectrum. Yoga practice actually soothes the nervous system, allowing energy to be released from the body. With many of these poses, a child in sensory overload will experience his system being calmed, focused, and quieted.
We need to be at home to use all our calming tools. Yoga is portable! Special breathing exercises are also virtually inconspicuous and can be practiced anywhere when the need arises. Choose a few of your child’s favorite breathing protocols and easy poses and you are now armed with a new tool to help your child in the world.
Will yoga help my child make friends? There are certainly many reasons children with ASD feel isolated from their peers; whether it’s conversational struggles, narrow focus of interest, or anxiety from pent up emotions and sensory issues, yoga will help your child become calmer and more focused. From this new place, the mind is open to learning in a much more effective way.
Don’t try to cure my child, Autism is part of who he is. Yogi philosophy places high value on individuality. Beyond the poses, students of yoga learn to accept themselves and celebrate the differences of others. Yoga is not a modality that will “cure” your child. It can, however, ease some of the struggles and help them accept their unique personality and behaviors.
This, I believe, is the ultimate goal for our children to help them step into their best selves.