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The Benefits of Yoga For Children with ASD

anxiety autism children Communication emotion regulation Impulse Control Self-Awareness Self-Discipline Self-Management social emotional learning Social Engagement stress Stress Management Yoga

by Maureen Flanagan, author of Strategies For A Successful Mealtime and Improving Speech and Eating Skills in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Benefits of Yoga For Children 

Yoga has become extremely popular in this country. Many adults have seen the benefits of yoga for themselves and are also looking at the benefits for their children. Children can easily become overwhelmed by their daily activities. Some are more connected to technology rather than their own bodies. These children may have difficulty focusing their attention which can cause learning problems. Yoga can offer many benefits to children. Some of these are:

1. body awareness
2. self-regulation
3. focused attention
4. balance
5. increased speech/language development

Other Benefits

Yoga has also been found to help reduce stress and manage the fight, freeze, flight reaction. Parents, teachers and therapists who live and work with children with a diagnosis of ASD also see the need for all of these benefits. There are even more advantages of the practice of yoga for children with ASD. Some of these include the ability to:


1. maintain personal space
2. self-calm
3. follow directions
4. joint attention

How It Helps

Breathing helps to calm the child’s mind and body and connect with feelings.  The postures enhance self- awareness while yoga games help children use their imagination. Partner poses can encourage children to interact, work together and learn to get along with each other. Both the individual and partner poses teach children to imitate movements by paying attention to each other and the instructor.

Instructional Tips For Teaching A Children’s Yoga Class

It is important that yoga is fun and playful so children can laugh and, at times, be silly. Praise and encouragement should be used to give attention to positive behaviors. The instructor teaching a class with children with special needs may need to control the amount and intensity of sensory information in the physical environment.

These classes do not need to have music as this may compete with the ability to process auditory information such as verbal directions. Music can be included with some yoga games and instrumental music may assist with relaxation at the end of the session.

Yoga For Enhancing Speech And Language Skills

After receiving my 200 hour certification and completing a children’s yoga teacher training, I began to teach yoga classes to children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. As a speech/language pathologist, I became aware of the many opportunities to enhance a child’s speech/language skills through the practice of yoga.

Children can actively learn directional terms such as “in front/in back, next to, top/back, middle, right and left”. Social language skills are enhanced by introductions/comments during icebreaker activities and partner poses. Mindful listening games promote auditory awareness, discrimination and joint attention. Children improve body awareness and imitation skills while moving into different postures. They also increase awareness of the different parts of their body.

Some of what they are invited to do are “spread their fingers, bend their knees, reach both arms up, breathe into their belly and curl their toes.” The postures can also encourage a child to use her/his imagination. This can be done by asking questions such as “Where is your boat going today?”, “What color is your flower or what does it smell like?” and “Can you feel the wind and the sun on your face?” Yoga games enhance all of the above. These games also allow the children to be playful and silly with the other children in the class.

Yoga For Self-regulation

Paying attention to the breath, enhances self-regulation, calming, joint attention and reduces stress/anxiety. Relaxation encourages the children to quiet their bodies and pay attention to how that makes them feel. The closing encourages the child to continue to breathe and hold on to the relaxed, good feeling throughout the day.

The children in these yoga classes were 5 to 9 years of age with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. The largest group was 7 children with an additional adult to help. A lesson plan was developed and followed that included all of the areas outlined above keeping in mind that the class should be between 30 and 40 minutes in length.

During the very first class, I was immediately struck by how the yoga mats defined the child’s space. Each child was seated, facing me with their eyes on me and quiet bodies. With verbal prompts, each said her/his name and named a favorite_________.

Helpful Yoga Tools, Poses, and Activities

A Hoberman sphere was used to encourage belly breathing. The yoga chimes facilitated mindful listening. The children enjoyed moving in and out of different postures such as table, cat/cow, downward facing dog, frog, butterfly, and superman pose.

These poses were demonstrated to them giving them an opportunity to work on imitation skills and improve body awareness in space. This was also a chance to be silly, playful, interact with others and use their imagination. One boy told me he was flying to Florida.

Tree pose can easily become a partner pose enabling two or more to support each other in this pose by joining hands. This helps to foster team-work, being part of a group and a group plan.

Games such as “Guess which object is missing?” work on joint, focused attention. Each child was also given the occasion to remove an object while the other children looked away. This increased the motivation to continue playing the game. Many of the children did not want to stop playing this game.

During relaxation, I was equally struck by how well the children were able to lay on their backs on the yoga mats with quiet bodies. They listened to the guided imagery and focused on their breath. After the closing, they even rolled up their mats.

What I Learned

Prior to completing the 200 hour yoga certification training, I only thought of how the practice of yoga benefited my own well- being. I did not consider all that the practice of yoga had to offer a child.

The Children’s Yoga Teacher Training helped to show not only the benefits of yoga for children but how to make yoga  interesting and fun for children. My years of training and experience as a speech/language pathologist made it easy to incorporate speech/language goals into a yoga practice.

I have seen much growth in the short time that I have been teaching yoga classes to children with special needs that I would definitely recommend adding yoga to your child’s life.

Resources
1. Campilio, J., 2019. Children’s yoga teacher training. Radiant Beginnings
Yoga, www.radiantbeginningsyoga.com.
2. Flynn, L,. 2013. Yoga for children. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media.
3. Goldberg, L., 2013. Yoga therapy for children with autism and special needs.
New York, N.Y.: w. w. Norton & company, Inc..


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