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Yoga, Neurodiversity and Sensory Processing

Updated: Feb 19

By Shawnee Thornton Hardy


In recent years yoga has gained interest for its potential benefits in areas of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing for youth. Educators, mental health practitioners and therapists have increasingly begun to integrate yoga and mindfulness practices in their work with youth and are seeing positive results.


A growing body of research has shown that yoga can improve memory, focus, self-esteem, academic performance, classroom behavior, and can even reduce anxiety and stress and increase resilience and self regulation in children and young people.


Emerging research has also shown that yoga can benefit neurodivergent youth, specifically those identified with Autism and ADHD. Results of such studies have shown an improvement in core symptoms of ADHD including inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity and potential improvement in imitation skills and prosocial behaviors in autistic children.


In my nearly 3 decades of working with neurodivergent children and teens as an Educational/Behavioral Specialist and Yoga Therapist, I have witnessed first-hand how yoga supports improved focus, body awareness, self-regulation, sensory integration and pro-social behaviors both in the school and home settings.


One area of specific interest I have had over the years is how yoga supports sensory processing, sensory integration and self-regulation.

According to the STAR Institute, 1 in 6 children have symptoms of SPD (sensory processing disorder) or SOR (sensory over-responsivity) at least three quarters of autistic children have significant symptoms of SPD and 60% of children with ADHD, in clinical trials, show SPD symptoms.


How our sensory systems work


We take in sensory information from both our internal and external environments. That sensory information is relayed to our brains, where it is processed. Once the information is processed, our brains signal an appropriate motor or behavioral response. This is referred to as the sensory feedback loop. An example would be if the temperature was cold in the external environment and we experienced the sensations of feeling cold, getting goosebumps and shivering. The appropriate behavioral response to feeling cold would be to turn up the heat or put a sweatshirt or jacket on. Sensory processing requires the ability to sense somatic experiences in the body, make meaning of or interpret those experiences and execute an appropriate behavioral response that would support regulation. Sensory processing and self regulation are directly correlated to one another.


Jean Ayres defined sensory integration as:


“The neurological process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively with the environment.”(1972) 


Smith and Gouze define self regulation as::


“The ability to self-organize–to control one’s activity level and state of alertness as well as one’s emotional, mental or physical responses to sensations.” (2004)


Children and teens who struggle with sensory processing may lack the ability to tune into important sensory information or modulate how much sensory information they take in. They may be over-responsive or under-responsive to certain sensory experiences. They may struggle with knowing how to respond to certain sensory stimuli. This can cause overwhelm, anxiety, meltdowns and dysregulation. 

Children and teens who are sensitive to their environments and the vast amount of sensory information coming in at any given time, often experience more anxiety and hypervigilance. Being in a perpetual state of fight/flight or freeze also impacts our ability to process sensory information efficiently.


How can yoga support sensory integration and self regulation?


There are several ways in which yoga can support sensory integration and self-regulation. 


  • Supports Body Awareness and Embodiment: Asana (postures) and breathing practices facilitate more awareness and connection to the body. 

  • Provides Sensory input that can support a more balanced sensory system: Specific postures & breathing practices along with tactile & sensory supports can be tailored to meet the sensory needs of the child or teen.

  • Support Interoceptive Awareness: Interoceptive awareness is the conscious perception of sensations inside the body. Asana, breathing practices and somatic inquiry support the ability to sense our internal landscape.

  • Supports Emotional Regulation: Our sensations are directly connected to our emotions. When we are able to sense “what we are feeling on the inside”, we are better able to connect with our emotions.

  • Supports Self-Regulation & Stress Reduction: When we are more connected to our bodies, are able to sense our internal experiences, can identify our emotions, and when given tools, can modulate our physical, mental and emotional states, we feel more grounded, more empowered and more regulated. 

  • Supports Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem: When children and teens learn “how to pilot their own planes”, they feel more of a sense of curiosity & confidence and can navigate the world with more comfort and ease.


Essentially, yoga can support neurodivergent children and teens with connecting to their bodies, tuning into their sensations and emotions, modulating their arousal states and learning to pilot their own planes, so they can move through the world more embodied, more grounded, more confident, more regulated and more connected to themselves and others around them.

Practices from my book - Yoga Therapy for Children and Teens with Complex Needs - A Somatosensory Approach to Mental, Emotional and Physical Wellbeing 


Body Connection: 




Tapping Body Parts 


  1. Encourage the child or teen to tap or squeeze different body parts.

  2. Invite them to name the parts of the body they are tapping or squeezing.


Interoceptive Awareness:



Tense/Relax 


  1. Squeeze your hands into tight fists

  2. What do you notice in your body as you squeeze your hands?

  3. Now relax your hands

  4. What do you notice in your body now?


Sensory Exploration:



Bee Breath or Hum Breath  (Auditory Sense, Body Connection & Interoceptive Awareness)


  1. Ask the child or teen what sound a bee makes. Demonstrate the hum sound to the child or teen).

  2. Encourage them to breathe a natural breath in.

  3. Invite them to make the hum sound with lips closed.

  4. Invite them to notice where they feel the vibration or sensation in their body when they do the breath.

  5. Encourage them to hum until they are at the end of their exhalation without straining.

  6. Option to cover ears with palms,

  7. Repeat 3-5 times.

  8. Check in and have them notice how their body feels after doing bee breath.


Emotions and Self-regulation:



Let it Go Breath (Releasing Worry)


  1. Think of something that makes you feel worried.

  2. Reach your hands forward.

  3. Breathe in and grab your worries, then bring your hands back towards your body.

  4. Breathe out, reach your hands out like you’re tossing a worry ball and say “haaaaa! 

  5. Repeat 3 times.

  6. Say “bye worry!”

  7. Notice how your body feels after letting your worry out.


Want to learn more?

Join an upcoming training!

Trauma-Educated Training Certification for Working with Youth and Young Adults

Yoga and Somatic Practices, through a trauma and Polyvagal Theory lens, to Support Youth and Young Adults in Building Greater Capacity and Resilience and Connecting to their True Essence



Yoga Therapy for Youth 100-hour Training



Purchase C.A.L.M.M Yoga Products



Purchase my new book!

This book is part of the curriculum for the Yoga Therapy for Youth Training!




References

AYRES, A.J. (1972), “TREATMENT OF SENSORY INTEGRATIVE DYSFUNCTION”. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 19: 88-88. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1630.1972.tb00547.x


Butzer, B., Day, D., Potts, A., Ryan, C., Coulombe, S., Davies, B., Weidknecht, K., Ebert, M., Flynn, L., & Khalsa, S. B. (2015). Effects of a classroom-based yoga intervention on cortisol and behavior in second- and third-grade students: a pilot study. Journal of evidence-based complementary & alternative medicine, 20(1), 41–49. https://doi.org/10.1177/2156587214557695


Cerrillo-Urbina, A. J., García-Hermoso, A., Sánchez-López, M., Pardo-Guijarro, M. J., Santos Gómez, J. L., & Martínez-Vizcaíno, V. (2015). The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Child: care, health and development, 41(6), 779–788. https://doi.org/10.1111/cch.12255



Ferreira-Vorkapic, C., Feitoza, J. M., Marchioro, M., Simões, J., Kozasa, E., & Telles, S. (2015). Are There Benefits from Teaching Yoga at Schools? A Systematic Review of Randomized Control Trials of Yoga-Based Interventions. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2015, 345835. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/345835


Gouze, K. R., & Smith, K. (2004). The Sensory-Sensitive Child: Practical Solutions for Out-of-Bounds Behavior. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA66958345


Hagen, I., & Nayar, U. S. (2014). Yoga for Children and Young People's Mental Health and Well-Being: Research Review and Reflections on the Mental Health Potentials of Yoga. Frontiers in psychiatry, 5, 35. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00035


Kauts, A., & Sharma, N. (2009). Effect of yoga on academic performance in relation to stress. International journal of yoga, 2(1), 39–43. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.53860


Radhakrishna S. (2010). Application of integrated yoga therapy to increase imitation skills in children with autism spectrum disorder. International journal of yoga, 3(1), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.66775


Semple R. J. (2019). Review: Yoga and mindfulness for youth with autism spectrum disorder: review of the current evidence. Child and adolescent mental health, 24(1), 12–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12295


Weaver, L. L., & Darragh, A. R. (2015). Systematic Review of Yoga Interventions for Anxiety Reduction Among Children and Adolescents. The American journal of occupational therapy : official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 69(6), 6906180070p1–6906180070p9. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2015.020115

 

Shawnee Thornton Hardy is a Certified Yoga Therapist, Author, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and the Founder of Asanas for Autism and Special Needs and Founder/Director of Yoga Therapy for Youth. She has worked with children and teens of diverse abilities and backgrounds for close to 30 years. She authored Asanas for Autism and Special Needs - Yoga to Help Children with their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body-Awareness and Yoga Therapy for Children and Teens with Complex Needs - A Somatosensory Approach to Mental, Emotional and Physical Wellbeing. She is the creator of the C.A.L.M.M Yoga Toolkit and Body Sensations Curriculum, a yoga and somatic curriculum designed to support children's diverse sensory, communication, emotional, physical and learning needs. Shawnee leads workshops and trainings online and throughout the US and Internationally She is passionate about supporting youth with developing self-regulation skills, connecting to their own inner power, building resilience and allowing their unique strengths and gifts to shine.

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