Yoga AutismAutism is a developmental disorder that typically appears in the first three years of life. This disorder makes it difficult for children to communicate verbally and non-verbally, to socially interact with others and to relate to the outside world. Many autistic children, however, also exhibit remarkable abilities in the areas of art, music and math. Autism used to be a rare disorder, occurring in about one in 1500 children. Since the late 1980’s, however, the autism rate has risen sharply in the U.S. and other countries. Current estimates put the autism rate at one in 500 children; and some recent studies in California and New Jersey report an incidence as high as one in 150 children.

For decades, most psychiatrists considered autism to be a psychological disorder. It is now generally acknowledged that autism is caused by biological factors, but there is little agreement over which factors are most important, and exactly how they cause autism. Unlike other disorders, autism is defined not by its cause, but by its symptoms, which may include purposeless, repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, rocking or opening and closing doors. Language skills develop slowly or not at all, the meaning of words is often ignored and gestures are used instead of words. Some individuals with autism may exhibit aggressive or self-injurious behavior and resistance to change in routine. Others may seem to lack common sense, throw tantrums for no apparent reason or obsess over an idea, object or person. Children with autism may also experience sensitivities to sights, sounds, touch, odors and flavors, and have strong reactions to them.

Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults may exhibit many different combinations of these behaviors, to any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, may act very differently and have varying aptitudes.

The first step in teaching Yoga to a student with autism is to establish a strong bond with the child. To do this the Yoga teacher will need to enter the world that the child lives in — to meet the child on his or her own level, so to speak. Only then will the teacher be able to gain the child’s complete confidence. Massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories are some of the different techniques that the teacher can use to connect with the child.

As student and teacher gradually develop a foundation of mutual trust and friendship, the Yoga teacher can introduce some of the Yoga poses (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) that will help to bring the autistic child out of his or her shell and into the world of social interaction. After the student becomes familiar with these introductory poses, the Yoga teacher may progressively add more asanas to the routine, as well as deep relaxation. The combination of asanas, pranayama and deep relaxation will strengthen the child’s nervous system, increase overall health and facilitate the development of body awareness and concentration. By establishing optimal physiological and psychological integrity, Yoga therapy helps autistic children gain new motor, communication and social skills. The end result is an overall improvement in their quality of life.