Can Yoga Help Children With Autism? Part 2
by Lisa DiFalco
As parents and caregivers look for natural treatments to reduce anxiety, improve focus and lessen self-stimulating behaviors in those with autism, ASD, Asperger’s and similar conditions, yoga may be an effective management tool. In the recent article we published, Can Yoga Help Children with Autism?, we explored the potential of yoga to help affected children begin productive days in the classroom and to reduce digestive issues were brought to light.
This follow-up article discusses what parents and affected individuals with autism and special needs can expect from a yoga session, and specific poses that are beneficial for those with autism, Asperger’s, ASD or a related condition. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Aubin, a 24-year old yoga instructor on Long Island, NY, who offers yoga for those with autism and special needs. He understands yoga instruction, not only as a yoga teacher, but also as a young adult with Asperger’s. Understand how yoga can positively impact the life of a child, teen or adult with autism or special needs in your community.
How to Get Ready for the Yoga Class
As parents, guardians or aides bring a child, teenager or adult with special needs to a yoga class, there are a few considerations. According to Aubin, responsible parties:
- Need to be present for the yoga session;
- Should have the participant dressed in comfortable clothing; and
- Know that individuals who are non-verbal or who self-stimulate are welcome to attend.
Aubin provides all necessary equipment during a session, including mats, blocks, bolsters and blankets. Yoga for autism and special needs is a gentle and therapeutic type of yoga meant to calm both mind and body. Aubin prefers to turn off lights during a yoga session to encourage relaxation. For some along the spectrum and with related conditions, lights can be over-stimulating. Poses may be modified based on the needs of participants.
Teaching to individuals with special needs requires a deeper understanding of yoga and how it can impact various aspects of the mind and body. After completion of intensive study in beginner hot yoga in 2014, Aubin continued instruction with a 200 hour hatha teacher training and completed another level of training with Samadhi Spectrum teacher training level 1 and 2 from Samadhi Sun/ Ashrams for Autism, a 501(c)(3)non-profit founded by Sharon Manner. The advanced Samadhi Spectrum course is available to yoga teachers, physical therapists, special needs teachers and occupational therapists supporting those with autism. Kim Rushmore, program director of The Center for Independence, talked about the impact of regular yoga on those with autism and said:
“Practicing yoga five days a week decreases anxiety in this population. Clients are better able to tolerate the frustrations of the day. They are better able to handle situations that cause them stress and anxiety.”
Aubin shared that aides that are present at some of his yoga for autism and special needs classes have reported that they have never seen their students sit for as long a period as they do during a yoga session. In addition, some non-verbal students participating at classes offered at the Developmental Disability Institute have started saying Om and Shanti. Parents say that their children appear to demonstrate a reduction in aggression and anxiety, and a lessened degree of self-stimulatory behaviors and obsessive behaviors.
Select Yoga Poses to Benefit Those with Autism
Individuals with autism, Asperger’s and ASD often suffer from high levels of anxiety and some have difficulty with eating certain foods as sensory issues can make certain textures and smells particularly unappealing. Children and teens can experience digestive issues. These are 3 poses that can help individuals expressing such symptoms.
Child’s pose (Shishuasana) helps decrease anxiety and promote relaxation. It calms the nervous system and relieves constipation. Those who are experiencing or have recently experienced diarrhea should not perform the pose.
How to perform Child’s pose: While sitting on the heels of the feet and keeping hips propped atop the heels, bend the body forward and touch the forehead to the floor. The arms are kept along the body and the hands are on the floor with palms facing up. Press the chest to the thighs gently. Hold the position and then come back to starting position and relax.
The Wind-relieving pose (Pawanmuktasana) opens the hips and helps with digestion. Movements help to relieve abdominal gas and reduce associated discomfort. The pose massages the intestines and other abdominal organs and relieves low back tension.
How to perform the Wind-relieving pose: Begin by lying on the back with arms beside the body and feet together. Begin to breathe in and out, and on the exhale, draw the right knee toward the chest and use clasped hands to press the thigh to the abdomen. Breathe in again and on the exhale, lift chest and head off the floor and bring the chin to the right knee. Hold the position and take long deep breathes, relaxing into the position. On exhales, draw thigh closer to the chest, on the exhale, relax the pressure on the thigh. Exhale and relax and resume the starting position. Repeat on the other side. Many practitioners also roll side to side up to five times when they finish the pose.
Sitting Half Spinal Twist pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana) encourages movement in the digestive system, while opening up the chest and increasing spinal elasticity.
How to perform Sitting Half Spinal Twist: Sit up with legs straight in front. The feet should be together and the spine erect. The left leg is then bent with the heel of that foot brought to rest beside the right hip. Position the right leg over the opposite knee. Bring the left hand to the right knee and the right hand behind the body. Twist at the waist, followed by the shoulders and neck toward the right. Follow the movement by looking over the right shoulder. Maintain an erect spine. Hold the position and breathe with long, deep breaths. Finally breathe out, release the hands, followed by the waist, chest and neck and sit up straight and relaxed in the original position. Repeat all on the other side.
Dietary changes may be necessary and a vegan diet may help those with recurrent digestive problems by providing additional fiber and a range of necessary nutrients. Yoga is a fundamental tool that helps individuals with and without a diagnosed condition self-regulate, increase body awareness and experience stress relief. Classes are available for those with autism, and trainings can be found to provide an additional tool for teachers, healthcare professionals and parents interacting with this population.