Yoga for Children with Special Needs (ASD)

Photo by Yan Krukov

A little bit of neuroscience behind ASD

To appreciate the impact of yoga on children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), let’s first understand brain waves.

There are 5 main types of brain waves that oscillate in certain intensity and patterns to communicate through our brain regions. Different brain waves are dominant depending on the activity engaged. For example, for cognitive tasks, beta waves are dominant.

Studies have shown that for people with ASD, there can be an excess of slow wave activity (delta and theta), an excess of fast wave activity (alpha and beta waves); there could also be an excess of alpha waves in some parts of the brain, and not enough of them in other parts. Their brain waves are also out of sync, causing interruptions in the coordination and communication between brain regions. Growth of the hippocampus could also be affected, which makes learning and memory difficult.

How does yoga help?

Generally, meditation practices, breath work and physical postures help to ground a person and balance brain waves activation. Studies have shown that yoga practices have helped people with anxiety to activate and balance alpha waves in both the left and right temporal lobes. Other studies have also shown an increase in grey matter in the hippocampus from regular and sustained yoga practices.

There have also been studies that show the benefits of doing yoga for children with ASD, such as increased body awareness, improved motor skills, ability to transit from one activity to another, improved self esteem and communication skills.

Yoga sessions for children with ASD

As children with ASD tend to be more visual, it is important to use visual cues and more direct instructions. The teacher could first demonstrate, and have the children follow. Alternatively, picture cards would also help, especially once the children are more familiar with the poses.

Breathwork: Place something on their belly (their palm, a bean bag or their favourite soft toy) as a sensory tool for them to watch or feel as they breath.

Poses: Start with poses that are simple to help them gain confidence. Weave in a bit of stories and imagination to make it further engage them.

“Stand as tall as a coconut tree. A tree stands tall and still.
Suddenly, there is a gust of wind from the left! And the tree sways gently to the right.
Now, the gust of wind is coming from the right! So the tree sways gently to the left.”

Photo by Kamaji Ogino

Poses related to animals are also popular with children, as they can pretend to be a cat, a cow, a lion, a baby cobra and so on. Be creative and make it fun for them!