Many people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty processing sensory information, meaning certain stimuli or changes to their environment can cause them to get stuck in “fight, flight, freeze” mode. Sensory overload can inhibit breathing, contribute to heightened feelings of anxiety and fear, and even cause physical pain. Thankfully, exciting new evidence suggests that yoga may be a useful therapeutic intervention for those with ASD. Yoga’s focus on connecting mind, body, and breath helps develop the sensory system, allowing people with ASD to process stimuli more easily and self-regulate.
Although research on the benefits of yoga for those with ASD is still somewhat limited, there are a few promising studies worth noting. One such study, published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, examined the effects of yoga therapy over two months on children between the ages of 8 and 14. One group received daily yoga classes and in contrast to the control group, exhibited positive changes in a number of areas including social interaction, emotional sensitivity and awareness, and ability to self-regulate. Parents and caregivers also noticed positive changes in the home, such as improved eye contact and verbal communication, which aided in interactions with other children and family members.
Throughout each yoga therapy session, there was a strong focus on creating a sense of safety for the students as feelings of safety are essential for relaxation. Each child was provided with their own practice mat to delineate their own personal safe space.
The yoga therapy sessions used a combination of strengthening poses like Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), calming poses like Sukhasana (Easy Pose), breathing exercises, and chanting the ‘om’ mantra, with a specific focus on each of the associated syllables (A, U, O, M) that together make up this powerful and unifying mantra. By the end of the study, many of the children showed better posture, improved imitation skills, and fewer self-stimulatory behaviors, and all of the children were able to imitate individual vowel sounds as well as the ‘om’ mantra and vocalize “namaste”.
There are many other inspiring stories that illustrate the benefits of a dedicated yoga practice for youth. One high school student with ASD, after years of personal and group yoga practice, decided to become a certified yoga instructor, ultimately co-leading a class of over 1,000 fellow students through an outdoor yoga session. And in China, a seven year old boy who was diagnosed with ASD at the age of three has now become the country’s youngest certified yoga teacher. These examples highlight the fact that yoga practice can help empower children with ASD to overcome some of the challenges associated with the diagnosis.
With mounting evidence of the benefits of yoga for individuals with autism, more community centers, yoga organizations, and schools across the U.S. now offer yoga interventions. For example, Together in Motion, a newly formed grant-funded group operating within the Autism Society of Central Ohio, provides yoga services for youth 12 and up. The program continues to expand with the assistance of local outreach and social awareness campaigns and as more parents and caregivers witness the positive effects of yoga.
For more information about the benefits of yoga for people with autism, visit YogAutism, Asanas for Autism and Special Needs, or Radiant Child Yoga. Along with providing yoga therapy for children with autism, these organizations offer trainings on integrating yoga into therapeutic treatment for children with learning and developmental differences.