Monday, December 13, 2010

Yoga and Autism

This research paper is about how yoga influences child with autism.

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. “Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood.” ( While it is known that the condition is linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain, it is unknown what the exact causes of these abnormalities are. “Autism has a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism are complex and it is unclear whether ASD is explained more by rare mutations with major effects, or by rare multi-gene interactions of common genetic variants. Complexity arises due to interactions among multiple genes, the environment, and epigenetic factors which do not change DNA but are heritable and influence gene expressions.” ( There are a number of possibilities that have been suspected, but not proved to be the cause of autism. Some of these include diet, digestive tract changes, mercury poisoning, the body’s inability to properly use vitamins and minerals, and vaccine sensitivity.

The symptoms of Autism can be show as soon as 18 months of a child's life. Parents start to realize that something is wrong in the development of their child. Infants with autism show less attention in social situations, they tend to not smile and look at people as much as a regular child would. Infants also usually do not respond to their own name. Children with autism tend to have difficulty in imagining and pretending the play, they usually have trouble being interactive in social situations, and tend to lack verbal and nonverbal communication. In some cases children with autism lose language and social skills they have gained over the years, after that age of two. This kind of autism is called the regressive type of autism. Around one-third to a half of children with autism never develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. As the child gets older they could become excessively sensitive to hearing, sight, smell, touch, or taste. They could refuse to wear certain clothing and could become distressed if they are forced to wear them. They become upset with an interruption to their normal routine. They tend to preform repeated body movements. Most of the time the person will become unusually attached to certain objects.

Screening can be done if a parent thinks that there maybe something wrong with there child. Just about half of parents of child who have autism realize that there is something wrong, and not unusual behavior by age 18 months. About four-fifths of parents notice around the age of 24 months. Postponing treatment may affect the child long-term so keeping an eye on the child and knowing the first signs of autism is very important. At this point in time, the US tests all children for autism at the age of 18 months and again at 24 months. They doing this using autism-specific formal screening test.

Here is a list of signs to look for in your child:

-No babbling by 12 months.

-No gesturing (pointing, waving goodbye, etc.) by 12 months.

-No single words by 16 months.

-No two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months.

-Any loss of any language or social skills, at any age.

There are many reasons why parents put their children in yoga classes. For most parents it is important to them that their child has some sort of beneficial outlet. Most parents want to teach their autistic child a way to help them calm down. Parents want children to focus on non distressing things in their lives. Parents also want to help their child block out things that cause the them stress, like noises, certain colors, or disturbing textures. But perhaps the main goal of yoga is to get to children to the point where he or she is able to make steps toward becoming more socially interactive. It is agreed by most teachers and parents that yoga has made a huge improvement in their child's life. Regular yoga classes have been shown to improve listening skills, the stretching in yoga helps relieve stress in their bodies, it challenges them and teaches them not to give up, and deep breathing gives them a tool to help them relax. It also can help slow down overactive children, helps regulate moods, helps the child concentrate, it can help children that are easily exasperated, it helps relax aggressive children, and parents like yoga because if a child has mobility issues, yoga is very accommodating to them.

While doing the research, I found that this new trend of yoga and autism is mostly used in western part of the country where yoga is widely excepted and practiced amongst many non-autistic people. One of the reasons that Yoga with autism is so prevalent here is because Molly Kenny, a speech-language pathologist and an Ashtanga Yoga instructor started a programs in Seattle, Washington called Integrated Movement Therapy or IMT. “Kenny discovered that when she combined touch or movement with verbal exercises, her patients generally experienced more spontaneous speech and improved mood. Such results convinced Kenny that a therapy blending speech-language exercises, self-esteem building, self-calming practices, and yoga postures might address the characteristics associated with autism disorders.” ( Most families that participate in yoga with their autistic child have the time to dedicate to the practice, have the money to have multiple people in the family take these classes alone with the children, and understand that teaching and practicing yoga with their child is a beneficial and important bonding time for the family and everyone involved in the child’s life. Now, on the West coast, some schools are picking up on this new therapy trend for autistic kids and are incorporating it into their daily school routine. They are finding that is it easier to maintain the children because they are learning tools to help regulate their moods. These programs are taught so that these autistic children become self aware and are able to identify when their mood is escalating into something that could turn upsetting.

For most autistic children, trusting unfamiliar faces is very difficult. The child usually only trusts people in his life that he sees on a daily basis. “Research suggests that autistic children are often withdrawn and relate better to objects instead of people. Many yoga poses simulate objects and animals, such as Mountain, Tree, or Down Dog, that the children may find engaging.” ( When emerging a child into the world of yoga, the teacher must form a tight bond with the student. The teacher needs to take the time to become a part of the autistic child's life and become a familiar part of it. Only when this is achieved with the teacher have gained the trust and confidence of the child. Most of the time the teacher uses massage, music, colors, dance, stories, and rhymes to help connect with the student. After the trust and friendship has been gained by the yoga instructor the instructor can slowly incorporate yoga poses in the form of asanas and pranayama or breathing exercises. The combination of asana and pranyama and deep relaxation techniques will help strengthen the child's nervous system, increase overall health, and will facilitate development of the body’s awareness and concentration.

Growing up my best childhood friend was autistic. His name was Joshua. He was and still is such a loving, caring person. From the time I was little until now, I have always been drawn to him. I’ve never met a person so kind and non-judging. He’s very naive about the world, and it just makes realize that there is still good in the world. Joshua’s mother, Martha, was my brownie leader, and an incredible woman. They live in a huge farm house in the middle of no where. Joshua’s mother had adopted about a 9 or 10 autistic children and had a few kids of her own. I remember going over to her house several times a week and witnessing her teaching her children yoga. At the time I had no idea what is was, but it was interesting to me and the fact that the kids loved it made me curious. They would all partake in poses like downward dog, child's pose, and worked on breathing techniques. Even Hannah who was paralyzed from the waist down participated in yoga. I asked Joshua’s mother what she was doing with the kids and she explained to me what autism was and what her children each had and what yoga was. She explained to me how yoga helped all her children relax and de-stress. At the time it was all very confusing to me, but looking back at it I will never forget watching them all do yoga, and now it makes so much sense to me. Joshua was able to take yoga to our school, where his aide would practice with him when he had a temper tantrum. From time to time I drive to see Joshua and his family. He is now 22 and still lives with his parents, as well as all the other adopted autistic children Martha and her husband have. Martha and her kids still practice yoga every day, as a family. Over the years I have become really close with Martha. We talk about how all the kids are doing and how Joshua is maturing and growing and its incredible to see. She explains how hard her life is but how grateful she is. When we talk about yoga and her children, she explains to me that yoga makes her life a bit easier. The kids now have tools that they need to deal with new social situations, new changes in arise in their lives, and how they are now all able to sleep fully through the night, including herself. Martha practices pranayama with her kids, and can see them using it say when they are in the grocery store distracted by the colors and people. Most of the time when I visit, Joshua and I sit on the porch and talk about whats new in his life. I asked him about practicing Yoga when I went to visit their house in Northwood, New Hampshire. Joshua had a big smile on his face. He told me that he loves downward dog. I asked him why and he said because it feels good and it makes him happy. The last time I went over to Martha's she asked me how my yoga class was going and asked the kids and Joshua if I could practice with the family that afternoon. I was nervous that the kids would feel anxious and not want me to practice with then. But once Joshua came over to me and pulled me into the “practice room,” I knew I was welcome. The practice lasted about thirty minutes which seemed perfect because right around twenty-five minutes the kids started to get a little antsy. We did a variety of simplified poses. We did Joshua’s favorite pose, downward dog. We did a few warrior poses, we did child's poses and Martha walked around giving all the kids a little back massage and we ended with some simple breathing activities and a good stretch. At the end of the practice we all sat Indian style, put our hands together, and said, “Namaste!” It was so powerful, and reassured me that I wanted to investigate and write my research paper on this topic.

It is clear to me that Yoga is very beneficial to Autistic children. I think it is important for everyone to have some sort of outlet no matter what are diagnosed with or aren't diagnosed with. It proves to be a bonding experience, a way to become self aware, and is actually beneficial to the body itself. I expect for this trend to really take off and I hope the families with cases of autism continue to explore the vast world of yoga and all it has to offer.

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3. Betts, Dion E., and Stacey W. Betts. Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: a Step-by-step Guide for Parents and Caregivers. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2006. Print.

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