The Benefits of yoga therapy for kids with autism
Although Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 68 children, the spectrum itself is pretty broad. ASD can vary in terms of the effects on communication skills, social skills, anxiety, and repetitive behaviors. This makes every child with autism unique and none of us can really be experts on autism itself. That said, there is growing evidence to show that yoga can be therapeutic for children with autism.
Here are eight ways yoga can benefit individuals with autism spectrum disorder.
Yoga therapy promotes self-regulation
Children with autism tend to experience difficulties with self-regulation or sensory integration, which refers to our ability to use and respond to both external and internal stimuli. This has adverse effects on a child’s mood and behavior. Yoga can help in this regard, as studies show that the combination of yoga poses and breathing exercises improves self-regulation and coping skills, reducing mood and behavioral problems.
Yoga therapy improves balance and stability
Autistic children often suffer from problems with balance and stability due to limited body awareness. This is something that yoga is effective at remedying as it gets kids familiar with body parts and structured movements. Yoga therapy helps these kids develop a greater sense of body awareness and control, especially when the poses involve both proprioceptive (input to the joints and muscles) and vestibular (input to the vestibular system) activities. These features are actually typical of most yoga activities.
Yoga therapy improves gross motor skills
Impaired motor development and difficulties in imitation behaviors are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders. This can have a cascading effect on other social and behavioral skills as motor skills play a role in all areas of development. Yoga can be an effective therapeutic tool in this scenario too as children with autism find it easier to imitate movement patterns in creative yoga sessions. A recent study that appeared in the journal Physical Therapy suggests that yoga can improve both gross motor skills and imitation behavior in children with autism.
Yoga therapy reduces anxiety and stress levels
Because of impaired sensory integration, children with autism often experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
Yoga is widely recognized for its efficacy in helping lower stress and anxiety, and is often integrated into psychological treatment programs for generalized anxiety, chronic stress, and depressive disorders. Breathing exercises and mindfulness-based exercises in yoga can also have a calming effect on children with autism, significantly improving their stress response.
Yoga therapy helps expression of emotions
Children with autism can struggle to express and respond to emotions which may lead to meltdowns or unwanted behaviors.
Yoga therapy provides children with an outlet to express difficult emotions in a constructive manner and within a safe space, without the fear of repercussions. Certain poses and breathing exercises can also reduce the intensity of negative emotions like anxiety and anger.
Yoga therapy improves self-confidence and self-esteem
Self-esteem and confidence can be problematic for children under the best of circumstances, but it’s even harder for autistic kids.
Balancing and standing poses like the tree pose and warrior poses aren’t just fun, but can also be empowering, helping build confidence. A skilled yoga therapist who works with autistic children can intuitively modify and adapt poses to suit the child’s abilities. This can make it easier for a child to succeed and feel a sense of accomplishment.
Yoga therapy maintains discipline
Although yoga therapy for autism is a lot more flexible to accommodate kids with special needs, it still follows a rather disciplined structure. Sessions are usually conducted at fixed hours, in a specific location, and with the same instructor. This sense of routine is helpful as autistic children can find sudden changes and the lack of routine to be overwhelming. The daily routine of yoga helps to establish trust, stability, and order, which can greatly improve your child’s sense of wellbeing and behavior.
Yoga therapy encourages social-communication
The benefits of yoga for improving motor skills and imitation is something that we already touched upon earlier, but this also has a direct bearing on communication skills. After all, both skills play a direct role in communication. In yoga therapy, not only does learning the poses and breathing exercises aid skill development, but the process of learning itself helps strengthen focus and attention. Research that appeared in the International Journal of Yoga suggests that yoga can work as tool to social-communicative behaviors, improving eye contact, as well as non-verbal and receptive communication skills.
Just remember that every child is unique and will respond differently to yoga. Be patient and don’t try to force your child to learn or practice a pose that they’re averse to.