Yoga therapy for youth with autism

By Kimberly A. Searl

Introducing youth who have high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to yoga therapy is an especially fulfilling part of my job. I think you’ll enjoy the story of one client in particular, as his experience really showcases how the practices can support ASD symptoms such as behavioral deficits, anxiety, and a lack of social connection. 

Nick’s story

When I first met him, Nick* was still in junior high school and needed to attend his one-to-one yoga therapy sessions with a parent in the room. He made minimal eye contact with me, asked rapid-fire questions, and sometimes threw yoga blocks and straps when he was frustrated. 

We’ve now been meeting once a week for 3 years. Nick has progressed to getting dropped off at the sidewalk, confidently walking into the studio, and talking with other clients while he finds his way to his mat and prepares for practice. We have had individual discussions about breath, relationships, Indian culture, life cycles, and bus routes, to name just a few of his favorite topics. He has gone from being able to tolerate 3 minutes of stillness in meditation to enjoying 10 minutes of silence in meditation. He practices and likes a number of physical yoga exercises, or asana, especially using a headstand chair to go upside down.

Nick’s mother offered her perspective, sharing how it was 

“interesting to see him respond to something new. The benefits that yoga can bring to him with regard to his anxiety, motion, strength, etc.—it is something I had never thought of. I see yoga as a therapeutic activity. Something he can do daily on his own. … I had no idea of the benefits of yoga, and I look forward to what this might mean for him in his development.”

Nick himself said,

“I liked [yoga therapy]; it helped me a lot. I learned new things. Meditation was my favorite. I felt relaxed after it. Breathing made me calm down. I always felt happy when I left yoga. When I couldn’t sleep one time, I thought of meditation to help me. I practice asana with my mom and sister.”

The therapeutic yoga community is an inclusive one where there are no penalties for doing things differently from others. In time, attending specialized group yoga classes can offer youth with ASD a safe environment where they can feel supported and interact without fear of failure, boosting confidence and self-esteem. 

Autism issues, yoga therapy supports

The term autism was coined in 1908 by Eugen Bleuler. In 1943, child psychiatrist Leo Kanner defined autism in children as a lack of social interest. (Learn more about ASD, which is estimated to come with a lifetime caregiving cost of $2.4 million.)

In young adults with ASD, symptoms may include significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills; establishing friendships with children of the same age; and sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people. Sensory-processing deficits may contribute to the lack of socialization and connection with others and are proposed to be correlated with low vagal tone. (Tone of the vagus nerve is related to the health of the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, functions of our nervous systems.) Yoga interventions have been found to help with vagal tone and anxiety in ASD and to benefit self-regulation for psychological health. Increasing tolerance to new stimuli is an essential component of improving function in everyday life for those with ASD.

Yoga therapy can be offered in a quiet and safe environment to prevent sensory overloading and allow for exploration of tolerance on the client’s own schedule. As a multimodal movement therapy, it is independent of language skills or cognitive abilities. It allows the child a sense of control and choice—unlike a school environment, in which they are told what to do and how to act all day, likely with little or no movement for prolonged periods. 

As sessions progress, the yoga therapist can begin to take cues from the client. When they are bored, for example, they may be encouraged to choose the sequence of each category of the session. This could include the order of the asana, the breath techniques practiced, and the position they want to be in for meditation (back, belly, side; with a comforting weight or without). This allows youth with ASD autonomy in their care plan. On a physical level, yoga therapy can teach the use of one’s own body weight to build strength. 

It has been both intriguing and rewarding to watch Nick’s development and to observe the effects of regular yoga therapy on well-being. Nick’s progress is a testament to how individualized yoga therapy practices promote self-agency and facilitate healing on all levels of the biopsychosocial-spiritual model.

In her Michigan private practice, Kimberly A. Searl, MS, C-IAYT, works with clients on the autism spectrum as well as those with chronic pain and trauma. She also offers school-based mindfulness training. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, and the TEDx stage.

 

*Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.