7 Benefits of Yoga for Kids with Autism

Written by Elizabeth Rowan

"I like yoga because it makes my body feel safe." -- 6 year old with autism

I recently had the opportunity to teach children’s yoga at the Autism Partnership School in Hong Kong as part of the Yogananth Andiappan Community, and was very moved by these little yogis and the power of yoga to connect with them. Already amazed by yoga’s seemingly endless benefits, I was further intrigued by yoga’s ability to address both the physical and emotional symptoms of autism. New to teaching yoga to children with special needs, I caught up with my friend Rachel Greb, owner/founder of YogaSprouts in Athens, Georgia, to compare notes and pick our favorite 7 ways that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can benefit from yoga. And the winners are…

1. Yoga develops motor skills. Kids with autism frequently experience delayed motor development, which can be improved as yoga tones muscles, enhances balance and stability, and develops body awareness and coordination. As motor skills develop, children have a greater sense of their physical self in space and in relation to others, and can improve their gait and stability. This leads to…

2. Yoga improves confidence and social skills. Poor coordination often yields low self-esteem as kids may be singled out or teased for not moving or behaving like other children, or not excelling in sports and outdoor activities. By learning self-control and self-calming techniques through yoga, they are likely to grow confidence in interacting with other children and refine their social skills. Learning to work together in a yoga class and playing with partner poses can also increase confidence within group settings.

3. Yoga provides sensory integration. Children with autism often suffer from a highly sensitive nervous system and are easily over stimulated by bright lights, new textures, loud noises, strong tastes and smells. Yoga’s natural setting of dim lights, soft music, smooth mats, and “inside” voices creates a comforting environment largely protected from unknown or aggressive stimuli in which calming down becomes enjoyable. Yoga’s physical poses allow nervous energy to be released from the body in a controlled manner, also leading to a calming sensation. Less stimulation means less uncontrollable behavior, outbursts and repetitive nervous movements – which is further enhanced by…

4. Yoga provides coping techniques to both kids and parents. Whether teaching the child breathing techniques for self-calming, talking the class through a guided visualization the child can use when getting anxious, or sharing flashcards of the day’s poses with parents to use at home, yoga provides an awesome toolbox to parents and siblings. It is a transportable practice that both parents and kids can draw from for a lifetime and share a meaningful home activity.

5. Yoga facilitates self-awareness. Yoga is particularly instrumental in helping kids with autism learn self-regulation. By becoming aware of their bodies and aware of their breathing, yoga provides them with the ability to cope when they start to feel anxious or upset. Many 'Yoga for Autism' classes teach yoga poses or breathing techniques specifically intended to help children contend with their escalating emotions. Since these children are visually oriented, savvy instructors add a visual element so that the child has a colored picture of each pose near his or her mat. Often, classes incorporate other experiences known to benefit a child on the autism spectrum, such as massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories

6. Yoga engages the emotional brain. We all know that yoga is far from purely physical, and this combination of movement, music, breath work and story telling activates the brain’s emotional region. This encourages children to develop awareness of their emotions and those of others, as well as keeps their attention in the class. Music is another powerful tool that the yoga instructor can share with parents to use at home to recreate the environment of a yoga class.

7. Yoga is orderly and consistent. Ideally, the class will be scheduled at the same time and same day of the week, with the students’ mats in the same layout, in the same room, with the same instructor(s). In my experience, there was one instructor per student, with the pairing the same week after week to impart a sense of trust and steadiness. This element of order is very important for a child and communicates stability – a state much preferred to being unexpected and thus out of control. Students may also enjoy learning yoga sequences, such as modified sun salutations, that are performed in the same order at every class. The class should have an opening and closing routine or practice – singing, tuning in, etc. – that further supports the students’ need for order.

It seems there is little these days that doesn’t benefit from yoga, and it is amazing to see yoga work its magic on children with autism and their families. To learn more about autism, visit www.autismspeaks.org.

(Thanks to Yoga For All for the opening quote!)

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