The benefits of yoga in schools for students with ASD
Author Jyoti Jo Manuel
Date 25th Mar 2019
With the identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on the rise, parents, teachers and other professionals continue to search for the best methods to support children with autism in home, school and community settings.
Recently, yoga has become a topic of interest as both an intervention and supplemental support for children with ASD. There are limited studies on yoga and the effects on children with autism, however, the studies that have been done suggest that yoga can be of significant benefit to children, especially those with ASD and ADHD. A recent report from the BBC also claims that yoga in schools can have a 'profound impact' on helping children to manage their behaviour with regards to social and behavioural challenges.
As we know, many children who have autism and/or ADHD are often in a very heightened state of stress and reactivity – a state of ‘fear, fright and ﬂight’. Yoga helps to reduce stress and reactivity and takes us to a place of calm. When a child has a sense of inner calm, they can interact better with the world around them without reactivity.
I’ve been sharing yoga with children with autism around the world for many years using the Special Yoga practices, which include breath control, movement (asanas), speciﬁc massage points, sound and rhythm, deep relaxation, sensory input and eye exercises. We use what the child is ready and able to work with.
Increased emotional control
Mind, emotions and breath are all linked, and breath is the key for health, emotional control and mind control. To fully regulate our system we need to balance the length of the inbreath and outbreath, and most of the children we share yoga with are not breathing to their fullest capacity and in the most regulated manner. We change this through counting, using our own breath to entrain theirs, touch supported breath, movement with breathing, making sounds (we tend to use the sound of OMMM as it has a healing vibration), and/or speciﬁc massage points.
Yoga and movement
Children with Autism and ADHD have very low reserves of ‘coping’ chemicals. When we perform our yoga postures we elongate (stretch) the muscle receptors. This elongation releases serotonin, a chemical in the brain that counteracts stress and is necessary for coping. Very simple stretches can make a huge different to the child, such as sitting lateral bends, performed slowly and mindfully, or lying supine stretches. The movements we use stimulate the vestibular and proprioceptive pathways and support a sensory diet for the children. Yoga, as a therapeutic tool, brings the body and mind into balance. It gently organises and orients the body/mind and helps the child to make sense of the sensations and their environment, whilst enhancing self-awareness. Rocking the body backwards and forwards or side to side can bring vestibular balance. A cat pose, on all fours, both stretches the spine and, because it’s a weightbearing position, gives proprioceptive feedback. Whether a pose is standing, balancing or seated, it can be modified to suit the ability of the child in order to build their self-esteem and help them feel peaceful.
Tips for teaching yoga to children with ASD
Practising yoga with a child in this way doesn’t only help the child to feel calm and relaxed. The outcome can be a positive and relaxing experience for both the adult and child. Here are some tips for introducing yoga into your school routine:
- Encourage children to engage in breathing strategies or yoga stretches when they become upset, agitated or anxious as a replacement behaviour or alternative behaviour to acting out or exhibiting inappropriate behaviours.
- Teach simple yoga poses and breathing exercises with the use of visuals, games, repetition and fun and motivating activities.
- Create a yoga schedule with pictures of poses so there is consistency and the child knows what to expect. Allow the child to choose preferred poses in order to feel a sense of involvement and control.
- Incorporate ’yoga breaks‘ throughout the day in order to encourage movement, stretching and breathing. This provides an opportunity to reset. Studies show that movement breaks throughout the day increase focus and concentration.
About the author
Jyoti Jo Manuel is the founder of Special Yoga.
Special yoga believe that all children are special and deserve to experience peace, joy and fulfilment of their potential and purpose.
They offer training courses in yoga and mindfulness for autism/ADHD. these courses are open to parents, educators, therapists and yoga teachers. No prior knowledge of yoga is necessary. You can find out more by visiting their website: www.specialyoga.org.uk.
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