Yoga for Improving Behavior in Children with Autism

Yoga for Improving Behavior in Children with Autism

In March of 2012, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) updated its estimate of autism’s prevalence from 1 in 110 to 1 in 88. Just recently in March of 2014, the numbers increased to 1 in 68. There is debate about whether autism is on the rise or whether autism is simply being identified more accurately and earlier on. What has come about from this increase in the identification of autism prevalence is more awareness about ASD and the challenges that many children with ASD face. ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by having deficits in social-emotional reciprocity such as having reciprocal conversations with others and sharing and understanding emotions. Many children with ASD may also have difficulty with expressive language (verbal communication) as well as receptive language (understanding communication of others). Restrictive or repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities are also evident. Unusual responses to sensory information such as bright lights, loud noises and temperature may also be present. Children with ASD vary widely in intelligence, abilities, communication and behaviors. ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. According to the CDC, ASD is almost 5 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).

Along with challenges in expressive and receptive communication, children with autism often have sensory integration difficulties. Sensory integration is a term that refers to the way the brain or nervous system receives messages from the senses and then turns those messages into appropriate behavioral and motor responses. Our senses provide information about the physical state of our bodies and the environment around us. Sensory integration is our ability to process external input from the environment around us as well as internal input from our own bodies. We process this sensory information with our 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) and our two hidden sensory systems, the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The vestibular system is the area of the brain that is responsible for balance as well as regulating attention, concentration and emotional and behavioral stability. The vestibular system tells us when we are rest and when we are in motion and the rate at which our bodies are moving. The proprioceptive system provides input of where our bodies are in space and provides a sense of groundedness as well as a feeling of comfort and stability. The proprioceptive system is responsible for motor coordination and communication between our brain and the sense receptors in our joints and muscles. Children with sensory integration difficulties have an imbalance in their sensory system and therefore may present with significant challenges with self-regulation. “Self-regulation is the ability to self-organize, to control one’s activity level and state of alertness as well as one’s emotional, mental or physical responses to sensations ” (Smith and Gouze 2004). Difficulty with self-regulation affects children’s mood, behavior, energy level and response to environmental stimuli.

Children with ASD may experience heightened levels of anxiety and/or frustration due to many factors including heightened responses to sensory input, difficulty with communication and processing information in their environment and lack of coping skills to manage stressors in their day-to-day lives. Stress and anxiety can negatively impact children’s physical and mental health, social/emotional well-being, mood and behavior. Anxiety and frustration can lead to impulsivity, emotional outbursts, aggression, self-injurious behaviors and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Many children with sensory integration difficulties, communication deficits and heightened levels of anxiety may display disruptive or inappropriate or unexpected behaviors in an attempt to get or process sensory input, in response to difficulty with communication and/or as a means of expressing anxiety, frustration or other difficult emotions.

Throughout the years many strategies have been employed to support children with ASD in reducing challenging behaviors. Recently, yoga has become a topic of discussion as a positive and supportive approach to managing difficult behaviors in children with ASD. A study about  Yoga and Improving Behavior  was recently published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy. Assessment of challenging behaviors was recorded before and after the yoga intervention and a significant impact on behaviors among children with ASD was noted. The results of the study showed improvement of behaviors in the children with autism who practiced yoga consistently over a 16-week period (Koenig, Buckley-Reen & Garg, 2012).
How Does the Practice of Yoga Improve Behavior?
The physical postures (asanas) support sensory regulation and decrease anxiety, which directly affects emotional and behavioral regulation. The poses along with breathing help children develop focus, concentration, and in many cases, impulse control. Sequences of poses that encourage the child to move from one pose to the next as well as balancing poses provide vestibular input. Stretching, compressing and deep pressure activities along with balancing poses provide proprioceptive input. A combination of poses that provide both proprioceptive and vestibular input helps balance the sensory system, which in turn supports self-regulation.

Breathing strategies (pranayama), support children in calming their nervous systems, releasing tension and stress in the body as well as releasing difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Various breathing strategies can be used as a way for children to release anger, anxiety, worry and frustration in a healthy and constructive manner. Certain types of breathing strategies soothe the nervous system, bringing the mind and body to a calmer state.

The practice of calming physical postures and breathing strategies support better sleep. Lack of sleep and irregular sleep patterns can greatly impact a child’s behavior, impulse control and ability to cope with daily challenges and expectations.

Visualization strategies support children in developing meditation skills, increasing imagination, focus, concentration and even language and vocabulary skills. Visualization and guided imagery increases the relaxation response and soothes the nervous system.
Not only can yoga benefit children with autism in developing self-regulation, self-soothing of physical and emotional states and coping strategies but yoga can also support and teach body awareness, awareness of breath, balance, hand-eye coordination, focus, language and communication, strength and flexibility, self confidence, motor skills and social skills, all of which support children with ASD in living happier, healthier and more peaceful lives!

Photo credit:   Tim Hardy