Yoga May Benefit Those With Autism

A recent study suggests yoga may be effective in improving classroom behaviors among children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Autism is a developmental disability arising due to neurological disorder that appears between infancy and the age of three. In a recent report for 2008 (the most recent surveillance year available), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 88 children have an ASD. This marks a 23 percent increase in autism since the last report was published in 2009. Increasing awareness of ASD and its prevalence has underlined the need for strategies to facilitate adaptation and modification of challenging behaviors among children with ASD.

Autism has no known cure. However, many of the more challenging behaviors associated with it—physical aggression, self-injury, tantrums, and non-compliance, among others—can be hard to cope with for educators and family. Yet these behaviors serve a key function for the child; thus, treatment strategies must meet the need the problem behavior meets, replacing socially-problematic behaviors with acceptable ones that serve the same underlying purpose.

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Yoga may improve autism through several pathways. Kids with autism often feel disconnected with or uncomfortable with their physical bodies, and uncomfortable with eye contact. Yoga practice allows them to inhabit their bodies in a low-key setting, attenuating discomfort they may normally feel in a social context. Advocates of yoga for autism suggest the simple instructions taught in yoga classes may facilitate skills including eye contact and imitation, while the environment fosters improved communication. Finally, yoga’s potential to improve symptoms of anxiety, common among those with ASD, merits further investigation.

Researchers Koenig, Buckley-Reen, and Garg of New York University randomly assigned children to a daily, 16-week yoga program or a standard morning routine (no intervention). The yoga program was Get Ready to Learn, a standardized program used across the country. Researchers measured challenging behaviors with both standardized measures and coded observations before and after the intervention. Their results suggest that teacher ratings of yoga group students’ maladaptive behavior significantly improved after yoga participation compared to control group participants.

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While these results are promising, as usual with preliminary research, we cannot attribute causality. There was no “active” control group; thus, participants undergoing their normal morning routine were not a good comparison for the yoga group. Had the study assigned the control group to, say, physical exercise or other “active” program, and the yoga improved better still (or similarly), then we would have cause for excitement!

These results follow on a 2011 study by Rosenblatt et al. of Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, who found a multimodal yoga, dance, and music therapy program based on relaxation response theory to significantly improve some behavioral and core features of autism. This study, however, lacked a control group, so is even less rigorous than the one cited above. At any rate, this is a good first step, and provides a foundation for future research to build on.

Do you know of anyone with autism who has tried or benefited from yoga?

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