Yoga, Autism and Neurodiversity
With the growing prevalence (now 1 in 44 children in the United States) and an increased awareness of autism; parents, educators and professionals are seeking information and strategies to best support autistic children and adolescents.
It is likely if you work with children and teens you will be presented with the challenge and gift of finding effective ways to teach and reach youth with neurodiverse brains and different communication and learning styles.
One application that is proving to be an effective approach to supporting children and youth is yoga.
According to a Systematic Review of randomized controlled trials testing the effects of Yoga with Youth, with outcomes including a range of constructs in three domains: psychological/behavioral, cognitive, and physiological/physical functioning, in all but five studies, yoga improved outcomes in at least one of these three domains. Results indicate growing evidence that yoga is a promising intervention for children and youth (Miller, Mendelson, Lee-Winn, Dyer & Khalsa, 2020).
Given promising evidence that yoga can be an effective intervention for children and youth, how can yoga specifically benefit autistic children? According to eight empirical research studies that implemented yoga and mindfulness-based interventions for children with autism, preliminary findings suggest that yoga and mindfulness based interventions are feasible and may improve a variety of prosocial behaviors, including communication and imitative behaviors; increased tolerance of sitting and of adult proximity; self control; quality of life; and social responsiveness, social communication, social cognition, preoccupations, and social motivation. Reductions in aggressive behaviors, irritability, lethargy, social withdrawal, and noncompliance were also reported (Semple, R. 2018).
As an Educational/Behavioral Specialist, Yoga Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who has worked with autistic children and adults for nearly 3 decades, I have found using yoga as a supplemental strategy, while implementing best practices that support engagement and learning, has been one the most effective approaches in developing the whole child.
When implemented and taught in an accessible way, there are multiple benefits yoga can offer to neurodivergent children.
What I find to be a wonderful benefit of integrating yoga in the classroom and in therapeutic settings such as Occupational therapy, Physical therapy, Speech therapy and other therapeutic modalities is that the child is engaged in movement and play that is non-competitive or goal oriented. I call it the “stealth” therapy where the child is reaching benchmarks and milestones towards specific goals without even knowing! Autistic children may be more motivated to do yoga poses and breathing activities while also gaining the benefits yoga can offer.
Benefits of Yoga for Neurodivergent Children
Body Awareness and Motor Coordination
Many autistic and neurodivergent children can be disconnected from their bodies and even struggle with identifying their body parts. Front-loading body parts in advance through activities like tapping body parts, mirroring movement of body parts and practicing the physical poses can support increased body awareness and connection to the body. This is where the word embodied comes in. When we are more embodied, we are more grounded and connected to the present moment. Poses and movement in which there is midline crossing, bi-lateral movement, balance and sensory input, supports brain body connection and whole brain learning as well as improved mobility and fine/gross motor coordination.
Most autistic children and youth experience some challenges with sensory processing. Sensory processing is how our brain processes internal and external information through our 8 senses. The 5 senses we are familiar with (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), our 6th and 7th senses (Vestibular and Proprioceptive systems) and our 8th sense (Interoception). Our vestibular system governs our sense of balance, gravitational security and movement. Our proprioceptive system governs our connection to our body, what each body part is doing and where our bodies are in space.
Our 8th sense, interoception, governs our ability to feel the sensations inside our bodies (hunger, fullness, need to use the bathroom, heartbeat, temperature, itchiness, sleepiness, irritability, etc.). Interoception is directly correlated to feelings and emotions.
Essentially, Interoception governs how we FEEL. Many children with sensory processing challenges may be hypo-sensitive (under-sensitive) or hyper-sensitive (over-sensitive) to sensory information. When a child has sensory processing difficulties they may exhibit unexpected or maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to get a need met (avoid input, gain input, communicate their discomfort, etc.).
What does this have to do with yoga?
The wonderful thing about yoga postures is each one can provide specific sensory input in order to help balance the sensory system. For instance, inversions (poses in which the head is below the heart) provide vestibular input while weight bearing and tense/relax poses provide more proprioceptive input. Embodied practices such as movement, tapping, breathing and connecting to sensations in the body support increased interoceptive awareness and connection to emotion.
The practice of yoga facilitates a bottom up approach. Rather than focusing first on the mind and more cognitive processes (the top down approach), yoga focuses on connecting to the body, sensation and emotion and building tools to self-regulate in order to be in an optimal state for learning. Many autistic children may struggle with self-regulation –in part due to sensory processing challenges and difficulty with communication. They may be in a perpetual state of fight/flight or freeze. Yoga provides tools to help modulate arousal states, to up-regulate or down-regulate the nervous system and empowers children in “piloting their own plane” so they can navigate the world with more ease and confidence.
Communication and Expression of Emotions
Autistic children can often struggle with communication and recognizing/expressing their emotions. A wonderful tool to support children with connecting to their sensations and emotions as well as expressing uncomfortable emotions is through breathing. Specific breathing strategies can be taught not only to up-regulate or down-regulate the nervous system but also to express emotions in a healthy way. We want children to know that it’s ok to feel emotion (anger, fear, sadness, frustration, etc.) and that it’s important to express their emotions. Breathing can be taught using movement and sounds to release built up tension in the body and nervous system and is more accessible to children who may not have a lot of verbal language to express their feelings.
We are beginning to understand more about the nervous system and how unmanaged stress can impact our connection to and relationships with others. The Polyvagal Theory has given us a great deal of insight into stress, trauma and our social engagement system. When children are less stressed and have a felt sense of safety, their social engagement systems are more online. Yoga can be a wonderful way to build connection, attunement and co-regulation with a child. We as adults are the co-regulators and can be instrumental in helping children feel more connected and grounded. When children are less stressed they are more able to connect with others and feel more confident in exploring the world around them. Keep in mind autistic individuals show connection in many different ways. A wonderful way to support social connection with peers is to facilitate yoga games. Yoga games support children with; peer connection, imitation, turn-taking, communication, leisure skills and perspective taking.
Focus and Learning
We know that when our brains are in survival, fight/flight, our attention and ability to learn is greatly impacted. When children are stressed or in a sympathetic arousal state, their reptilian brain (the Amygdala) is hardwired to fight or flee in order to “get out of danger”. The Amygdala is responsible for big emotions such as anger and fear. When the Amygdala kicks in, the Prefrontal Cortex, which is responsible for logical thinking, self-control, communication and decision-making goes offline. It’s no wonder when a child is stressed that they struggle with learning. With children, I refer to the Amygdala as the Lizard brain and the Prefrontal Cortex as the Lemur brain. We have to take care of the Lizard in order for the Lemur to be ready to learn! We want children to be in a regulated state for optimal learning to take place.
We live in a Neurodiverse world in which children and adults learn and communicate in different ways. The foundation of yoga focuses on our relationship with ourselves, our relationships with others and our interconnectedness with the world around us. An essential focus in yoga is self-love and living the truest expression of ourselves. We want children to recognize and celebrate their strengths and to see their own unique and wonderful purpose they have in the world. By implementing teaching strategies that support diverse brains, bodies and learning styles, yoga and mindfulness can be made accessible to anyone.
Strategies for Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to Neurodivergent Youth
· Frontload Vocabulary, Expectations and Information
· Visual, Auditory and Tactile Props and Supports
· Social Stories
· Direct and Concrete Language
· Teach to the Child’s Strengths and Interests
· Offer Choices
· Provide Variations to Poses
· Praise Effort Rather Than Performance
Sharing the practices of yoga and mindfulness with neurodivergent children and adolescents can be a tremendously rewarding, fun and bonding experience both for the adult and the child. The many benefits that come are just an extra bonus!
Adapted from the original article in Autism Advocate Parenting Magazine May 2021
Miller, S., Mendelson, T., Lee-Winn, A. et al. Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials Testing the Effects of Yoga with Youth. Mindfulness 11, 1336–1353 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01230-7
Semple, R. Review: Yoga and mindfulness for youth with autism spectrum disorder: review of current evidence (2018). https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12295
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Shawnee Thornton Hardy is a C-IAYT, Certified Yoga Therapist, M.Ed. Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, the founder of Asanas for Autism and Special Needs and the Founder/Director of Yoga Therapy for Youth. She is the Author of Asanas for Autism and Special Needs - Yoga to Help children with Their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness and the creator of the C.A.L.M.M Yoga Toolkit. She leads trainings Online and throughout the US and internationally in Yoga for The Diverse Child, C.A.L.M.M Classroom (Yoga in Schools), Trauma-Informed Yoga and Somatic Movement for Children and Teens and a 100-hour Yoga Therapy for Youth with Complex Needs training.
Shawnee's new published book Yoga Therapy for Children and Teens with Complex Needs - A Somatosensory Approach to Mental, Physical and Emotional Wellbeing is now available for pre-sale. PURCHASE HERE.