Adaptations: Yoga Calm for Children on the Autism Spectrum

From the time we began to formalize and integrate the activities that became Yoga Calm, it was important to us to keep the program flexible and adaptable. We wanted to create something that could meet the needs of all students yet be tailored to those of specific populations. After all, while kids diagnosed with ADHD and those on the Autism Spectrum, for instance, share many common traits, they also have their unique characteristics and challenges.

Much adaptation happens through emphasis, focusing on the Yoga Calm activities that most directly address the particular cognitive, physical and emotional needs of any given group. Here, for instance, are some features typically emphasized when sharing Yoga Calm with ASD students:

  • Social skill practice to learn how to read faces, body cues and other social signals
  • Reducing environmental sensory stimulation – e.g., keeping lights down and using soft music in a quiet, decluttered space
  • Facing mats forward to reduce distractions from other children
  • Self-calming activities such as Volcano Breath, Pinwheel Breath, Belly Breathing and Forward Bends
  • The incorporation of rhythmic, repetitive movements to help the brain get the input needed to learn how to regulate

Many of those who have participated in Yoga Calm trainings work regularly or even exclusively with ASD populations – educators such as Chris Reano, an ASD teacher at Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota. She was introduced to Yoga Calm last year when her school brought in Trainer Kathy Flaminio for an inservice training, where staff were encouraged to integrate Yoga Calm into their classrooms.

“As soon as I began using the ideas and strategies I was learning,” says Chris, “I knew I was on the right track for improving the services I was providing the children. Emotional and sensory regulation are two of the biggest needs of students with ASD, and all five Yoga Calm principles are integral to working on just those needs.” She has since taken Wellness 1 and 2 with Kathy, and now practices yoga regularly herself.

We asked Chris if she would share some specifics of how she uses Yoga Calm to help the K-5 students she teaches, all of whom are on the autism spectrum and mostly “high-functioning,” spending their school day between general education classrooms and an autism program. Here’s what she had to say:

I begin all groups with deep breathing. Each group has a specified leader for the day who chooses the specific activity: Volcano Breath, seated belly breathing with a Hoberman sphere, Pinwheel Breath or lying on their backs with Beanie Babies on their tummies and doing deep breaths with the Hoberman sphere.

After the breathing, the leader goes to the Yoga Calm poster of Positive Self Talk, which we call our “magic words,” and the leader guides the group in repeating them twice. The first time, the children hold their hands over their hearts so they can “put these important words in our hearts, where we’ll always be able to find them.” The second time, they put their hands on their heads and pretend to lock the magic words into their brains.

This routine is incredibly powerful, and I witness the children in other settings, using their breathing and magic words independently. For instance, at a parent/community event where I was displaying materials I use with students, a 4th grade boy who was helping with my table told everyone who stopped about Yoga Calm. He explained how he uses the positive self talk on the playground when he doesn’t win a game – how he used to cry but now knows what to tell himself to get through a disappointment.

I also regularly use Mindful Snacks with the students, bringing in unusual, healthy foods that the kids may not be familiar with. We set the table with placemats, “fine china” (that I’ve acquired at thrift shops!) and battery-powered tea lights. We engage all our senses and make observations about the mystery foods we’re experiencing. Many students have very limited palates for a variety of reasons (e.g., sensory dysregulation, cognitive rigidity), but I find that in the context of the Mindful Snack, they’re open to trying to new things and being adventurous with foods!

I also do a weekly Yoga Calm lesson with a general education 4th grade classroom in which four of my students with ASD are integrated. There are numerous benefits for doing the large group lessons in an integrated setting. Especially beneficial have been activities that are community-building. The group LOVES to do Back Drawing and community poses such as Tree Circle. Afterwards, we always reflect, and I hear wonderful things from the children about what they observed and experienced.

Also, there are children from many cultural backgrounds in this particular classroom. Every time we do Volcano Breath together and send heart thoughts out to others, I love to hear about the many people in other countries that these children are sending their loving thoughts to.

We also asked for any words of advice Chris had for others who are sharing yoga with ASD diagnosed children. In addition to honoring the power of deep breathing – having the children practice it often and everywhere – she stresses two key points: “Empower the children with Positive Self Talk, and find opportunities to teach the children to draw on these thoughts in difficult moments. These two things are SO powerful because, as I tell the children, we ALWAYS have our breath and thoughts with us!”

We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves! Thanks, Chris, for the wonderful work you’re doing with the Oak Grove kids – and sharing your wisdom and insight with our community of parents and colleagues.

Do you work with ASD kids? Share your favorite Yoga Calm activities in the comments!

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