Yoga for autism: Does it really help?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition where a person experiences difficulty in communicating with processing stimuli from their external environment. Most symptoms of ASD present themselves within the first two or three years of a child’s life. Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial in order to give children and their families the tools they require to regulate their behaviour and improve their interaction with the world around them. Some of the most prevalent symptoms of autism are in language development, communication, social interaction and emotional expression; problems like anxiety and temper tantrums can also predominate in some children, as can problems with sleep, digestion & other lifestyle factors. Any treatment to manage autism, therefore, needs to involve a holistic approach that treats the mind as well as the body.
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice, but only recently are the positive effects it could have on people with autism, becoming better known. Its emphasis on balancing the mind, body and soul and expanding a sense of self-awareness could have special implications for treatment of autism.
Here is everything you need to know about the benefits of yoga for autism and the best yoga poses for autism treatment.
Benefits of yoga for autism
The advantages of including yoga in autism treatment could be far from a modern medical discovery. Symptoms that closely resemble those of autism have been elaborated in the Ayurvedic texts under Vataja and Pittaja Unmada. Some of the major benefits it could have on children with autism include:
1. Greater emotional awareness
The emotional awareness that yoga can develop offers dual benefits for children with autism. Children with autism typically have difficulty understanding their own emotions and interpreting those expressed by others. This can lead to them having inappropriate emotional outbursts and reactions to others. Pranayamas (breathing exercises) are used in a yoga practice to bring greater stillness to the mind and to let go of negative emotions such as anger, sadness and confusion. This can act as an outlet for children to express their emotions in a socially acceptable way and to improve their overall mood and behaviour. The self-awareness that meditation brings about can even help children with autism understand emotional cues from other people and learn how to respond to them properly.
2. Reduction in anxiety
Anxiety is often the root cause of several disruptive and self-destructive behaviours in children with autism. Yoga can help reduce and manage anxiety in several ways. Meditation and poses like savasana have been proven to bring down heart rates and stress, which immediately improves anxiety levels in patients. Regulated breathing techniques in pranayama exercises are also extremely effective in controlling anxiety and improving a patient’s general mood. Several yoga poses, such as the child’s pose, help a child feel secure and safe. The feeling of security in a child can also stem from the repeated use of their own yoga mat; 68x 24 inches of personal space that is completely their own. These combined factors stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the feelings of anxiety in children with autism.
3. Spatial and bodily awareness
Children with autism often have challenges with spatial and body awareness. Practicing yoga poses can vastly improve both as it involves manipulating your body within a given space. Simple instructions like “turn to the left”, “raise your right leg” or, “rest your head on the mat” can help children understand their body better and learn how to manoeuvre through their surroundings. This can improve their overall coordination and lower the risk of hurting themselves by accident.
4. Controls destructive impulses
Since children with autism are unable to properly process and interpret their emotions, they may express them in destructive and harmful ways. Behaviours like aggression or self-injury including head banging could be an outcome of such inappropriate emotional expression. A key benefit of yoga is sensory integration. Sensory integration is when a person can interpret and manage external stimuli with their internal responses. Only through proper sensory integration can a person effectively manage their emotional reactions and physical responses. The repeated practice of yoga can, over time, help children improve their sensory integration, which will ultimately reduce instances of destructive behaviour.
5. Improves self-confidence
Successfully completing a yoga class, or even a specific yoga pose, can give children with autism a sense of accomplishment, which greatly increases their feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. This is also why having a yoga instructor who is familiar with the needs of children with autism is important. Constant positive reinforcement from the instructor will help improve a child’s self-esteem and encourage them to continue their yoga practice.
6. Offers life-long management techniques
The ultimate goal of autism treatment is to provide children with the tools they need to function independently even outside of therapy. Yoga practices offer children techniques for self-regulation and emotional control that they will be able to use throughout their life. For example, children can be taught to start practicing pranayama as soon as they feel anxious or angry. This will reduce bouts of temper tantrums and other types of destructive behaviour.
Yoga poses for children with autism
The ideal yoga poses for children with autism combine simple asanas with pranayamas to offer a holistic practice. Some of the best yoga poses for autism include:
There has been some research which indicates that trikonasana (the triangle pose) can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, making it extremely beneficial for children with autism. It can also improve balance and awareness of the body.
How to do the trikonasana pose:
1. The child should stand with their feet wide apart - at least 2-3 feet depending upon their height.
2. Keep their right foot at 180 degrees and their left foot at 45 degrees.
3. Ask them to stick their left hip out and slowly bend sideways until their right hand is touching the floor or their right foot.
4. Hold this position for 30 seconds while looking upwards and repeat on the opposite side.
Simhasana, the lion pose, is excellent for relieving anger. This pose offers children with autism a healthy outlet for feelings of negativity and can improve their overall behaviour.
How to do the simhasana pose:
1. Help the child sit on their knees, with their ankles crossed behind them and their palms on their thighs.
2. Ask them to open their mouth and stick their tongue out with the tip curled towards their neck.
3. Inhale slowly and exhale with a loud, “ha!”
Balasana, the child’s pose, is one of the best poses for helping children feel safe and for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Balasana can also be combined with visualisation techniques to improve its efficacy.
How to do the balasana pose:
1. Ask the child to sit on their mat either with their knees together or with their knees placed apart and ankles touching.
2. Take a deep breath and slowly bend forwards stretching their arms in front of them until their forehead touches the mat.
3. Allow them to stay in this pose for as long as is needed.
The practice of yoga can be an excellent complement to autism treatment therapy. It can have long-term positive effects on a patient’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.