In today’s world, although autism spectrum disorder is becoming widespread, there is no medical treatment since the cause of autism has not been fully identified yet. The treatment of autism aims to plan the education process which will enable the child to develop communication skills appropriate to his/her age. For this purpose, besides special education programs to develop verbal and non-verbal communication skills, language and communication therapies, therapies based on sensory regulation and physical activities, yoga, dance, and music studies can be useful.
We know that yoga is a tool that can be applied by children and people of all ages without any age limit and benefits for all individuals. As the cause of autism spectrum disorder is not known exactly, many studies are showing that there are not very sharp and valid treatment methods that can cure the disorder, that is, to bring individuals with autism to the same level as their peers.
In many countries, yoga has become widespread as a complementary therapy for children with special needs and children with an autism spectrum disorder. Yoga programs have been implemented in many schools and training centers.
An intense sport has a lasting effect on children’s brains. Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for all people. However, this is a frequently ignored issue in all individuals with disabilities, including individuals with a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. The motor functions of individuals with autism are neglected, although their participation in physical activity shows benefits such as reduced repetitive behavior, increasing appropriate responses, and providing social interaction potential.
Since yoga is mainly aimed at relaxing the nervous and muscular system for people in general, it can be applied with children of all ages and diagnostic groups. Families are also included in the yoga process to learn yoga techniques for helping their children with autism.
Most children with autism experience difficulties in processing the sensory input from the nervous system. While traditional therapy techniques are based on simulation or various materials, yoga therapy involves movements with purely coarse motor muscles. When a child with autism learns various yoga poses, breathing exercises and visualizations, he or she can manage to calm himself or herself.
Research has shown that after 8-10 weeks of yoga therapies, children with autism have improved their behavior in various areas such as language and speech, social and communicative skills, attention and focus, having and maintaining eye contact, motor planning, happiness and compliance in general.
It was observed that children attending a yoga therapy program for 8-10 weeks focused more on desk activities than before joining the program, their transition between activities became easier and they became more calm and happier.
Physical activity and yoga should be included in the daily schedules of children with autism. The aim should be to ensure that individuals with autism can exist in social life by completing the deficiencies encountered in the areas of development in individuals with autism through physical education and sports practices given to them.
According to a study which was conducted by Harvard University researchers, an increase in the gray cell density of the hippocampus region of the brains of individuals with autism who were performing yoga for 27 minutes per day for 8 weeks was observed. There was also an increase in self-control and compassion.
When the mothers do the exercises shown in yoga sessions at home, the feedback is that children with autism like and make the movements better and more balanced. For example, birds, airplanes, rocking horses, baskets, swings, kayak, bouncing frogs, woodcutting, erupting volcanoes and so on. After the yoga, it can be observed that they calm down with music. In the movements shared by touching the grass, touching and hugging trees, touching with parents and close friends in the sea and nature, children are much more successful, calm, free and happy.
With yoga therapies, children can apply yoga poses to their daily routine. Children who learn poses can easily overcome the problems they face in daily life. Easier to calm down, focus and attention increase. Apart from the therapies, families who learn yoga poses can create a space at home for their children and continue their calm work at home.
Poses taken in yoga therapy are known by the names like Tree pose, Superman pose, instead of their original names, and made fun for children by playing. Compared to other therapies, yoga allows children with autism to calm themselves without the help of others.
It is a fact that mental and behavioral problems in children with autism affect and impair the quality of life and their families. Also, it is a fact that the practice of yoga in children in need of special education provides even more benefits than other individuals. Increased sensory perceptions, improved speech skills, and increased respiratory capacity are just a few of these benefits.
According to researches, yoga has been successfully applied to decrease effects of mental difficulties such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, Down syndrome, and learning difficulties, as well as sensory and adaptive problems. Also, stimulating the brain for the release of serotonin and dopamine helps in the treatment of children with many mental disabilities, especially in children with cerebral palsy.
As a result of yoga training by gaining the child’s confidence and increasing self-confidence, a decrease in the aggressive behaviors of the children can be observed. Also, balance problems in children with autism can be solved as a result of balance movements in yoga.
Usually, the most difficult thing for families is behavior problem behaviors in children with autism. For example, excessive mobility, hand-clapping, turning around themselves, stimming, etc. while starting yoga training, children with autism can like dancing with hand-clapping and turning themselves. In this way, after discharging their energy, it is helpful to go to breathing exercises with soft music.
Most mentally retarded children have limited breathing. Thanks to yoga, these children begin to breathe in a way they have never done before. Increased breathing capacity, accompanied by an increase in the level of oxygen transported in the blood, reaching a higher oxygen level in the brain stimulates the brain more. It may also be useful to use visual materials in breathing exercises.
The main reason why children with mental disabilities are not able to learn at the same pace as their peers are that these children are not disabled, but are not provided with the necessary prerequisites for these children. The more stimulated the brain, the more important it is to overcome these prerequisite stages faster. The effective physical work system offered by yoga has a very positive effect on behavior.
The difficult anger and unwarranted screams are seen in children with autism can be relieved and softened by the music and movements used in yoga. This calming also contributes to the children’s sleep patterns.
Although the basic features of autism spectrum disorder are the same in every child, every child has very different problems. This can be supported by playing games appropriate to the characteristics and behavior of children during yoga training. In doing so, care must be taken not to create a competitive environment.
The most frequently used treatment group in the treatment of autism is standard special education therapies and approximately 70% of children with autism can benefit from it. For example; combined training modules aimed at strengthening the child’s cognitive functions and communication, social skills training, visual materials, behavior training techniques are used and all of which are part of yoga training.
Also, it is a fact that children with autism can benefit from yoga by supporting music and art therapy. As children with autism adapt to yoga, they can play together with their friends and create unity, develop friendship and socializing.
Making an effort as much as success in life is very meaningful. Children with autism should be told that what matters is not the sense of competition, but to participate, have fun and increase self-confidence. In this way, individuals with special needs can be brought back to society and they can be ensured to be productive individuals who are respected in society.
As a result, when it comes to the treatment of autism spectrum disorder, situations such as making easier the child’s communication with the environment, strengthening them to meet their basic needs, solving certain behavioral problems, normalizing the child’s sleep and nutritional behavior should be understood.
Anxiety and Yoga
On the contrary to popular belief, yoga is not a religious practice. Yoga is a systematic program of various posture and breathing exercises, relaxation techniques and self-control tools. It is a program of exercise, focus, and breathing centered movements.
Children with autism have very different sensory experiences than other people. These experiences, starting from the digestive organs, affect the blood circulation, causing contractions and constrictions in the skeletal system. These contractions end with anxiety disorders. Since children who regularly take yoga therapy learn breathing exercises and relaxation techniques, their contractions in the body also decrease over time. Along with the decrease in anxiety levels, calm and relaxation are observed in their movements.
Benefits of Yoga on Children with Autism
Recently, yoga has been of interest as an intervention and additional support practice for children with autism. Although there are limited researches, they show that yoga can provide important benefits for children on the spectrum. Through its application of pleasant music, deep breathing and relaxing postures, yoga have a long-term positive effect on children with autism.
Yoga practices can easily be included in the day of children with autism to reduce problem behaviors, improve communication skills, reduce anxiety levels and become calmer. Yoga exercises not only help children feel more calm and comfortable but also provide a positive and relaxing experience for the adult who has a child doing yoga.
In addition to benefits typically associated with yoga such as increased strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility, benefits such as increased social-emotional skills, language and communication, body awareness, self-regulation, focus and concentration, and a reduction in anxiety, impulsive, obsessive, aggressive and self-stimulatory behaviors have also been observed.
Visual games and motivating activities can be used while teaching yoga poses and breathing exercises to children with autism. Visualized exposure cards can be used in children with poor language skills. When the child who has learned yoga gets angry, anxious or when the problem is about to develop behavior, it is necessary to direct them to the games they learn in their breathing strategies.
When starting yoga, first of all, it is necessary to create a program by selecting the movements according to the abilities of the child and to ensure the child’s self-confidence.
Increase in Communication Skills
Yoga contributes to the development of imitation skills of children with autism. It can be an effective tool to increase imitation, cognitive skills and social-communicative behaviors. Children who practice yoga have an increase in eye contact time, tolerance to sitting behavior, nonverbal communication, and receptive language skills.
The ability to understand and mimic actions is directly linked to the development of social communication skills. During yoga, they learn poses and breaths by copying the behavior of adults. This learning also supports increasing the duration of common attention, something that can be the most difficult to deal with in children with autism.
Awareness and Expression of Emotions
Yoga practice not only brings more awareness to social cues such as facial expressions, actions, and social behaviors. But, it can also bring more awareness to children’s emotions and how they are feeling. Children with autism do not express themselves sufficiently and they face communication difficulties. Because they cannot express themselves, they may stimulate their emotions unexpectedly or improperly.
Breathing strategies, the most important part of yoga, can be taught to children through games. They can learn how to control their unwanted emotions or at least they can learn how to replace those emotions with pleasant emotions. Providing an outlet for them to express their emotions gives them the message that it is OK to feel in this way.
Reduction in Anxiety
Many children with autism usually have a high level of anxiety. This situation significantly affects children’s sleep patterns, mood, behavior, and routine. Children with autism are in constant anxiety and panic because of communication difficulties and sensory integration gaps. During a fight and discussion, children’s communication gradually decreases and harmony in their breathing disappears.
Breathing strategies, as always, are very important in this case again. Also, the ways to relax the nervous system can be taught. The practice of yoga can support them in developing coping skills, self-regulation skills, and more effective responses to stress, both emotionally and physically. In this way, they acquire self-control skills, they can cope with problems, they may have a quieter routine, improve overall health and sleep patterns.
Reduction in Problem Behaviors
According to the results of one study, assessment of challenging behaviors was recorded before and after the yoga intervention and a significant impact on behaviors among children with autism was noted. The results showed that problem behaviors decreased and there was an improvement in children with autism spectrum who had a regular yoga practice for 16 weeks.
Breathing strategies and yoga pose not only reduce the level of anxiety in children with autism but also regulate their impulsive, angry and mobile behavior. It also helped them cope with self-regulation, which means responses to environmental stimuli, and internal impulses.
Increase in Physical Awareness
Children with autism also recognize body parts through yoga and the way the body moves and develop feelings about body awareness. The poses also support body awareness. Directional concepts from top to bottom in right and left in yoga also contribute to the development of a wider physical perception.
Supports Positive Self Perception
Yoga helps children develop self-esteem and self-confidence. It is a fact that yoga poses are different and often exciting poses for children. It helps the child to feel confident and successful in poses such as standing, balance, sitting. Each child will contribute to a sense of accomplishment and self-perception when they are offered help in posing abilities.
Effects of Yoga on Brain
“Charles Hillman who is from the University of Illinois Department of Neuroscience and Kinesiology conducted a study to reveal the relationship between exercise and brainpower. The study was conducted with the participation of 259 students from primary schools. Through this research, it has shown how exercise affects the brain. Students who devote more time to physical education courses compared to other students showed superior performance in mathematics and reading classes regardless of their socio-economic status.”
More blood means more oxygen. This is why the brain cells of a person who is doing exercise are better fed. For decades, it has been the only link that science has found between the athletic body and mental power. Now, benefiting from advances in brain scanning devices and biochemistry, scientists can explore the effects of exercise on the brain in more depth.
The effect of the exercise first manifests itself in the muscles. In each contraction and relaxation of a two- or four-headed muscle, chemicals are secreted, including a protein called IGF. These substances travel with the blood and eventually reach the brain. In the brain, IGF works like a foreman in the body’s neurotransmitter factory.
This protein precipitates orders to produce other chemicals. One of these substances is the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor produced in the brain. This molecule, which is considered as a miracle, triggers activities that reach higher thoughts.
With the help of regular exercise, especially with yoga, the body improves the BDNF level and as a result, branching begins in the brain’s nerve cells. Thus, new roads that connect improve the communication infrastructure. It is this process that underlies the phenomenon of learning.
All junctions between brain cells are new abilities or information held on one side for future use. If the amount of BDNF, which plays a very important role in this process, is large, the capacity of the brain expands. If the BDNF is low, the brain closes itself to new information.
In children, as in adults, the hippocampus provides the most benefit from exercise. Parents of hyperactive children and parents of children with autism are aware of this. Therefore, in many cases, it is recommended that children engage in intensive sports instead of medication.
Tips for Teaching Yoga to Children with Autism
- There should be a scheduled yoga created with pictures of poses. Thus, there would be consistency and the child knows what to expect. Otherwise, there would be inconsistency and it becomes chaos for a child on the spectrum.
- Yoga breaks should be included during the day. These breaks encourage the child to move, stretch and breathe. It offers the opportunity to reset every time. Because movement breaks during the day increase focus and concentration.
- A yoga space should be reserved in the environment. Children should be able to access this area when they need it. Images of breathing exercises can be featured in this area. Simple yoga stretches and breathing exercises can be done by using a chair, if necessary.
- Visual games could be a fun and motivating way to teach them simple yoga poses and breathing exercises.
- Yoga poses and breathing strategies should be chosen at first that allow the children with autism to feel successful. You need to practice them one by one all the time before adding new yoga poses and breathing strategies.
- It should be allowed the child to choose preferred and favorite poses in order to feel a sense of involvement and control.
- Children with autism should be encouraged to engage in yoga stretches and breathing strategies when they are in bad moods. Yoga can be used as a replacement behavior or alternative behavior to acting out or exhibiting inappropriate behaviors.