Yoga for kids with developmental disorders

“Special Needs” is a wide spectrum of symptoms, diagnoses and illness ranging from mild learning disabilities to profound mental retardation, developmental delays that catch up quickly to one’s that remain ingrained well into early adolescence, occasional panic attacks to serious psychiatric problems.  While there is no cure for many childhood disorders such as Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and so on, health care professionals are working around the clock to come up with ways to make the lives of children affected by these disorders just a bit more orderly.

Yoga, being a practice that transcends age, health or cultural barriers has been seen to have tremendous effects on the mental and physical well being of children with special needs and is being widely accepted as a means of therapy for these kids.

The following information is extracted from special needs yoga therapist Sonia Sumar’s website and explains how yoga works for various disorders.

“Attention Deficit Disorder: A significant deficiency in age-appropriate attention, impulse control and rule-governed behavior which manifests in early childhood.

Symptoms: Difficulty in following instructions, restlessness and impatience, forgetfulness and sometimes, hyperactivity.  Children with this disorder generally do not perform well in school, though most test at average or above average intelligence.  They also tend to have a very low self-esteem.

How yoga can help: With regular practice, children with ADD develop greater body awareness, emotional balance and concentration – increasing their capacity for schoolwork and creative play. As overall performance improves, so does their self-esteem.  As breath is deeply connected to the emotions, teaching pranayama to children who have attention deficit disorder is very helpful.  Pranayama stimulates vital areas of the brain and central nervous system. By combining pranayama with asanas and deep relaxation, the benefits are greatly enhanced.

Autism: A developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life. This disorder makes it difficult for children to communicate, interact with others and relate to the outside world. Many children with autism exhibit prowess in art, music and math

Symptoms: Repetitive behaviors such as rocking, opening and closing doors etc. Language skills develop slowly or not at all, aggressive or self-injurious behavior, resistance to change in routine, throwing tantrums for no reason, obsessing over an object or person, sensitivity to sights, sounds, touch, odors and flavors

How yoga can help: The first step in teaching yoga to a student with autism is to establish a strong bond with the child and ensure that the child trusts him/her.  Massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories are some of the different techniques that the teacher can use to connect with the child.

Once the connection is made, the yoga teacher can introduce some asana and pranayama that will help to bring the child with autism out of his or her shell. After the student becomes familiar with these introductory poses, the  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 children with autism gain new motor, communication and social skills. The end result is an overall improvement in their quality of life

Down Syndrome: Persons with Down Syndrome are shorter than average, with truncated limbs. They may have an epicanthic fold of skin extending from the eyelid over the inner canthus of the eye, be crossed eyes and have low muscle tone. Motor development is slow and instead of walking by 12 to 14 months they usually learn to walk between 15 to 36 months. Language and cognitive development are also delayed. The majority of children with Down Syndrome function in the mild to moderate range of mental retardation. In addition to these delays, they are also susceptible to medical problems such as congenital heart defects, increased susceptibility to infection, respiratory problems, obstructed digestive tracts and childhood leukemia.

Asanas help to stretch, tone and strengthen the body. Asanas also stimulate the internal organs and endocrine glands.  Yoga can help children with Down syndrome stay slim and flexible as they tend to put on a lot of weight as they age. Together, pranayama benefits the central nervous system and Asanas facilitate the development of body awareness, concentration and memory — vital skills for any child with a developmental disability.

Cerebral Palsy:  A disorder caused by injury to the motor areas in the brain, affects muscle tone and the ability to control movement and posture. In most cases, CB occurs during pregnancy or at childbirth. In other cases, infections such as meningitis or traumatic brain injury may result in cerebral palsy. There are three types of movement disturbances associated with cerebral palsy:

Spastic cerebral palsy: Muscles are tense, contracted, and resistant to movement. This is the most common form, especially in low birth weight or premature babies.

Athetoid cerebral palsy: The affected parts of the body perform involuntary movements, such as turning, twisting, facial grimacing, and drooling. This form of cerebral palsy generally involves damage only to the motor centers, not to other parts of the brain.

Ataxic cerebral palsy: Lack of balance and coordination and altered depth perception, due to damage to the cerebellum. Ataxia involves difficulty maintaining balance and swaying when standing.

The practice of asanas followed by deep relaxation, can reduce high muscle tone, which is characteristic of most children with cerebral palsy. Holding an asana gives the muscles and tendons a relaxing stretch, releasing overall stress and tightness. At the same time that asanas are relaxing the body, they also provide just enough resistance to exercise low muscle tone areas of the body. In this way asanas actually improve both high and low muscle tone problems in children with cerebral palsy.

The most important aspect of asana practice for children with cerebral palsy is its ability to stretch and re-align the spine. Asanas flex and twist the spine in all directions. A series of stretches and counter-stretches helps to create more space between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the disks and nerves that radiate out of the spine. Reducing the pressure on these radial nerves facilitates the release of muscular tension throughout the body and enhances overall nerve function. As a result, the child is able to develop a greater range of movement and coordination, as well as greater independence.”

Reference:  Yoga for the Special Child by Sonia Sumar