Q&A: How Yoga Can Benefit Children with Autism

December 30, 2016    BY Kathryn Ashworth

It’s becoming increasingly clear that yoga can be a powerful tool and a valuable complementary therapy for people with special needs—so much so that yoga is no longer a practice relegated to the studio. As its healing qualities become more widely recognized, it’s being taught and practiced in schools and even occupational therapy offices.

Yoga International recently contacted Shawnee Thornton, an educational/behavioral specialist and yoga teacher who has made it her life’s mission to teach children with special needs. She is the creator of the C.A.L.M.M curriculum and the teacher training program Asanas for Autism and Special Needs. Her ultimate goals are to help her students discover a greater sense of independence, enhanced social skills, and coping mechanisms that support their social/emotional life—to help them live the happiest and healthiest lives possible.

During our conversation we explored the benefits of yoga for people with autism, her teacher training program, the C.A.L.M.M classroom curriculum she developed, and much more. If you’re interested in teaching people with special needs, especially children with special needs, then read on.

In what ways can yoga specifically be beneficial for people with autism?
There are many ways yoga can be beneficial to people with autism. Many people with autism struggle with language-processing difficulties, identifying and communicating difficult or uncomfortable emotions, sensory-integration challenges, and knowing how to self-regulate their physical and emotional states. People with autism also may struggle with anxiety and obsessive thinking. Yoga poses, breathing strategies, and visualization strategies, when taught in an accessible way, can support people with autism in expressing and releasing difficult emotions, sensory integration, self-regulation, social and communications skills, reducing anxiety, and an overall increase in self-esteem and self-acceptance. Along with the many benefits listed, yoga also has many physical and mental benefits that support improved motor coordination, fine/gross motor skills, strength, flexibility, sleep, digestion, memory, focus, and concentration. These are all areas that can be a struggle for people with autism.

What is the "C.A.L.M.M classroom" curriculum? Does a teacher have to be a certified yoga instructor to implement this system in their classroom?
I developed the C.A.L.M.M toolkit and curriculum to teach children of all abilities yoga. The toolkit was designed to be easily incorporated into a classroom, program, therapeutic setting, or yoga studio by parents, caretakers, educators, occupational therapists, speech therapists, adapted physical education (APE)/physical education (PE) teachers, behavior therapists, and anyone who wants to share the benefits of yoga with children. It is easy to implement even without a background in yoga. The toolkit includes large-print visuals, chair yoga, a game deck, emotions cards, wrist bands for left/right concept, and easy-to-follow instruction cards with concrete language and visuals to make yoga inclusive and accessible to children of all abilities; it teaches children crucial skills for positive social/emotional development and physical health and well-being.

In bringing yoga to schools and to children with autism, what kind of obstacles do you experience? How do you overcome them?
There can be many obstacles to bringing yoga to the school setting in general as well as to children with autism specifically. I think the first obstacle is getting the buy-in from educators, administration, and parents that yoga and mindfulness can be incredibly beneficial to children of all abilities. We live in a world where there is so much outside stimulus, stress, and pressure, and not enough opportunity for children to move their bodies throughout the day. I found that even working with children who demonstrated the most challenging behaviors, when yoga was incorporated throughout the day, multiple times a day, it improved focus, attention, and overall mood and behavior in the classroom. Not just the mood of the children but the mood of the adults as well! We need that opportunity in the day to reset our nervous systems and connect back to our breath and bodies.

How have the children you’ve worked with impacted your life?
There are so many children over the years that have made a tremendous impact in my life. They have all been my teachers. One child in particular is Karla. She was 12 years old when she came to my behavior program. Throughout her time with me we worked on communication, developing coping skills, and learning how to be “flexible” with unexpected changes in her life. I taught her how to email as a way to communicate with her parents and friends, and in the process she began to email me. She is now 20 years old and is still my pen pal. She emails me and tells me that she and her mom do yoga at the park. It warms my heart every time and reminds me how we can each impact one another in such profound ways with love, compassion, determination, and intention.

I developed my teacher training program because I have an incredible passion for making yoga accessible to children and adults of any and all abilities.

Please tell us about your teacher training program and how fellow yogis can get involved.
I developed my teacher training program because I have an incredible passion for making yoga accessible to children and adults of any and all abilities. My program, Asanas for Autism and Special Needs, is a registered yoga school through Yoga Alliance and offers a 95-hour Children’s Yoga Teacher certification with an emphasis on children with special needs and a 25-hour Yoga for Children with Special Needs training that I teach throughout the country and globally. It is my opinion that all children have special needs—each child has their own unique makeup and experience of the world around them. We are also living in a time when, if you work with children, it is almost a guarantee that you will have a child identified as having special needs in your program. It’s our responsibility as educators and advocates of children that we learn tools to support children of all abilities. My mission is to help get yoga into schools, therapeutic environments (OT, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, physical therapy, cognitive therapy, clinical settings), and the home setting because I believe yoga offers such incredible benefits to the children as well as to those who share yoga with them.

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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