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Teaching yoga to children with autism

Melissa Albarran
Mar 31, 2021 2:44:12 PM

One in 100 children in the UK has a diagnosis of autism spectrum condition. For those children diagnosed with the developmental condition, difficulties with communication, social interaction and flexibility of thought may occur. 

Recent studies have indicated that yoga can have a positive impact of integrated yoga therapy for young people with an autism spectrum disorder. We spoke to Jyoti Manuel, founder of Special Yoga about how yoga can support young people with autism and additional needs. 

Why is practising yoga a beneficial activity for children with autism and special needs?

Many children with autism and other needs have sensory needs and yoga can act as part of a sensory diet. Yoga when used therapeutically can provide tools to support self-regulation, emotional and mental health resilience, as well as building strength and flexibility. When the nervous system is brought into regulation, there are so many benefits including improvement in quantity and quality of sleep, reduction in challenging behaviours, greater ease and peace physically, physiologically and emotionally, improvement in motor planning and motor coordination etc. 

How do you adapt yoga for young people with additional needs?

Special Yoga teaches each practitioner to learn to deeply listen to the needs of the young person on all levels. The practises are then adapted appropriately to meet the needs of that young person. It may be that a session might include very little asana. It will however always look to bring the autonomic nervous system into regulation and the breath will always be involved with that.  Accessing an improvement and balance in the breath might come through movement, or specific massage points, or using sound or through specific breathing practises. 

Do you include the families of children with autism in the yoga practice? 

We work with families as well and offer simple, effective and accessible tools.  We would absolutely want families to support their children with therapeutic yoga practices. We want the practices to be integrated into their lives rather than something that is always done on a mat.  We would also look to support the primary carers with their self-care as this will have a massive impact on the wellbeing of the child and in fact the whole family.  Also, the whole family can participate in yoga practises - and how lovely is it for them to be able to share this time together. 

Do you think there needs to be more therapeutic support made available for children with autism and additional needs? 

Yes, I do.  I think there is a lack of understanding about sensory needs, behaviour management, communicating with children who are non-verbal or pre-verbal. I also feel that parents, educators, social carers, respite carers need to be using the same techniques and practices with each young person so that these valuable tools can become integrated into life through consistent practice. 

When teaching yoga to children with an autism spectrum condition, what approach do you recommend? 

No judgement, no expectation, a loving compassionate, patient open-hearted invitational approach so that the child is empowered with the amazing gift that yoga can bring.  I think we underestimate how important it is how we show up. Our state matters.  How we think and feel about the child and their behaviour matters.  Can we separate the child from their behaviours and always see the magnificence of each and every child irrespective of what they are presenting?  Understanding their sensory needs.  After all challenging behaviour is just a form of communication and our job is to listen deeply to the unmet and unexpressed needs that the behaviours will inevitably be telling us.  From one week to the next, one day to the next, the children will come to the mat differently. 

What are the fundamentals of teaching yoga to children with additional needs?  

Do your inner work.  Open your heart.  Practise mindfully and slowly and embody the practises so that you really truly understand each one physically, physiologically, emotionally, energetically as well as spiritually if that's relevant. Be open to what the child needs.  No class plans.  Learn to read their energy.  Meet their magnificence. Listen to their call.  And have an intention (not expectation) to support the young person to find the greatest peace inside that is possible for them at that time.    

For more from Special Yoga, visit their website here. 

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