YOU & ME Yoga with Autistic Children

This report is by Lynn Bhania who was Deputy Head at Radlett Lodge School. It is backed up by an accompanying video showing Lynn teaching yoga to a small group of children after school.

Autism is a very complex condition which can manifest itself in many different ways, but all children with autism exhibit the same three impairments -a) they lack empathy with othersb) they have severe communication problemsc) they show ritualistic and obsessive behaviours and suffer from anxieties and fears.

I worked with autistic children at Radlett Lodge School, Hertfordshire for four years.  Children with autism need lots of gestures, signs and pictures to help them understand the spoken word, especially in situations where they are asked to interact with each other in a socially acceptable way, and they often learn by copying.  They also need a predictable and structured routine where activities have a definite beginning and end, in order to allay their anxieties.  I feel that the YOU & ME system provides all these.

When I first heard about it I was impressed by the way it encouraged people to work together as a group in a calm and controlled atmosphere.  Dealing as I do with children who are full of anxieties and often switched off from the rest of the world, it seemed to me that this might be a way of working which would increase their awareness of others and give them some purposeful control of their bodies.

I decided it would be best to arrange a session in our residential unit after school time.  This gave the added advantages of providing more comfortable surroundings and allowing me to work with a much wider range of ages and abilities.  Initially I worked with a group of four children for several weeks and extended the group to include any who chose to join in.  If numbers exceed I have the help of a residential social worker as well.

The children are aged from twelve to fourteen and vary in ability.  One has speech, but his understanding is quite limited; two can repeat words but have little spontaneous speech; and one boy communicates by signing.  All have problems with comprehending the spoken word and find it difficult to concentrate for long periods, but they can copy body movements accurately, and they enjoy physical activity.

I worked gradually towards a full set of movements by first choosing the movements with names that would be familiar and recognisable to the children.  I brought along photographs, and two of the children drew pictures themselves so that we could link them to the movements.  I also made sure they could link the sounds we made when breathing out to our photographs and drawings.  We use pictures, gestures and signs in all our communication work, to give them as many clues as possible towards understanding the spoken word.  

I chose Dog, Cat, Crocodile, Cobra, Palm Tree and Chopper for our first movement programme, as these were easy to link with pictures and were good for choosing noises that they could make.  We chose noises that were appropriate, e.g. woof for Dog or meow for Cat, and personalised them by using the names of the children’s own pets, e.g. ‘Jasper’ for the Dog and ‘Candy’ for the Cat.

Each session begins with a simple greeting to each member to build up the concept that we are a group.  We then do a group-breathing activity which brings them together physically by holding hands.  We raise our arms to breathe in, and lower them slowly saying the word ‘Yoga’!  This allows us all to regulate our breathing to the others in the group, and signals when it is time to make a change for the next stage of movement.   Once they have begun to breathe together and have gained control and calmed down, we begin to work through the movements.

I first show a picture card of the movements we are going to do and remind them of the sounds to make.  We then work through each movement six times, linking each one to the pictures that provide a structure and order to our sessions. Hence they can work through a set of pictures and perform tasks independently and in the correct order without any verbal prompting from me. We can also alter a picture or change the order without increasing their anxiety, because they can see what is coming next and so can relax and perform well.
  

After six repeats of each movement we repeat our group-breathing using the word ‘finished’, as we breathe out.  This signals the end of the session and is often followed by a short period of relaxation during which the children sit or lie down quietly while some relaxing music is played softly.

Finally we say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to each other before we break up.

These children usually find it hard to watch each other while working as a group.  The breathing and the Postures encourage them to do this and to time their responses so that we all make our sounds together.  Most of the children make strange and inappropriate noises, particularly those with speech problems who have difficulty in controlling the pitch and volume of their speech - not to mention choosing appropriate subjects to talk about.  For these children to make a sound like ‘woof’ when asked is a big enough achievement;  to time it to fit in with a sequence of Whole-Body-Movement and keep in time with the others in the group is a real step forward for them.  Lack of motivation to do any form of physical exercise, despite the fact that they have no physical disabilities and are mostly robust and healthy-looking, makes autistic children generally very unfit.  They are lethargic, and their Posture and general muscle tone is poor.  Yoga gives them regular exercise in a controlled stress-free environment, and helps to improve their Posture and muscle tone, as well as giving them control over their breathing, which in turn helps blood circulation and lung function.

The children enjoy it because they smile and laugh.  They sustain concentration for longer periods than normal, and do not wander off or become disruptive.  They watch each other and try to work together, as well as making appropriate sounds when asked. They seem better able to coordinate their bodies when performing the movements, and feel secure in the structure imposed by the YOU & ME Yoga Cards, pictures and familiar routines.  Obsessional and ritualistic behaviours are reduced during the session, and a general sense of calmness and control seems to prevail.

Video showing Lynn Bhania teaching this yoga group.



Extracts from the YOU & ME Yoga Modular Programme:
  • Introduction to YOU & ME Yoga - video
  • Learning Difficulties and Associated Conditions with Yoga Case Studies
  • YOU & ME Yoga Postures and Variations for Special Needs
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Yoga for Children with Special Needs


A recent statutory job I had was piloting teaching YOU & ME Yoga within the Occupational Therapy department for children and young people of a Central London hospital.  With 22 cases inc. babies, toddlers, children and teenagers diagnosed with:

severe learning and physical disabilities, PMLD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia)

presenting poor: mobility, coordination, core stability, attention span, concentration and difficulty with organisation, and clumsiness, etc.

Project scheme:
The Team Lead invited parents/carers within the catchment area to bring their children to the yoga project. Involving an initial one-to-one meeting with the Yoga Therapist (me) to establish a suitable individualised yoga plan for each child. With the option to attend a short course in a group with other children to motivate learning and on going yoga practice together. Or if unable to attend the group meetings after the individual assessment session, it would be possible to continue practice at home with their individualised yoga plan.

Procedure
Initial Consultation and Assessment:
A health questionnaire was completed by the client’s parent/guardian before our one-to-one session. To establish the child’s condition, character, communication, physical abilities and any health needs.

The parent, therapist or carer was expected to accompany the client. We discussed the individual client’s medical and health condition, and the main problem areas and goals were established and agreed. 

Then I assessed the client’s joint range and ability for practising yoga. A lesson plan is always planned in conjunction with the YOU & ME Whole-Body-Movement recording system that provides - at a glance - the condition, limitations and abilities of the client. From which the most suitable and safe techniques can be selected for that clients’ yoga lesson plan, for reference and on-going practice.

Group Yoga Sessions
Eighteen children continued attending the weekly group yoga sessions, that were arranged into A, B, C, i.e. equivalent to mild, moderate, severe disabilities. The remaining children and parents had a few more one-to-one sessions with me to reinforce the yoga plan instructions for their home practice together.

It was possible to hold group classes incorporating these clients’ individual yoga plans. Simply because with YOU & ME Yoga we include a technique for all the seven different areas of the whole body, i.e. the legs, hips, waist, chest, arms, alternate sides, upper and lower body. Hence, in class we can work all together on the same body part including each client’s particular technique.

A sample Yoga Plan for Student 1 case-study:
Main Problems:
Severe athetoid quadriplegia; Stiffness of limbs; core stability weakness; neck extensor spasm.
Goals:
To help free stiffness in body with practice of whole-body-movement sequence
Strengthen core stability with suitable techniques
Tune into the diaphragm to articulate lungs and tone abdomen
Establish suitable sitting and or holding techniques for mum and baby
Assist child to relax, using massage and relaxation techniques.



Conclusion

The originally planned short course of group sessions extended beyond one term to nine months of three weekly classes for the eighteen students.  The staff, parents and children seemed to enjoy and appreciate the sessions. The audit forms I kept with the outcomes of each session show how many of the set goals were addressed and helped reduce the problems of most of the children. Involving improved: body awareness, coordination, mobility, flexibility, strength, core stability, sensory awareness, self-confidence, adaptive behaviour, communication and confidence. Some parents even joined a yoga class for themselves, and most have since reported how much they enjoy practising yoga at home with their special child!
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Yoga and Special Education in India


I am deeply grateful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust that gave me a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and insights into yoga for disabled people in India. I travelled over 6,000 miles in seven Indian states where I meet and learned from some of the renown yoga masters and eminent educationalists.

The highlight of my Fellowship was meeting Education Psychologist, Dr P. Jeyachandran, Director of Special Education in Tamil Nadu. 


We met at Vijay Human Services, a small school for special children in Madras (now Chennai). He greeted me with pleased surprise, because we had just learnt that we had both introduced yoga to people with severe learning difficulties around the same time, even though we were at opposite ends of the earth. His book ‘Teaching Yogasana to the Mentally Retarded’ (pub. 1983) showed me that we used the same yogasanas (yoga postures) with breath and relaxation. 

He told me about the facilities at his training centres, as the Director of Balar Vihar Special Education programmes for teacher training special educators, the children in special schools, and the parents of special children in day care.

My visit was such good timing because in January 1985 Yoga was just being implemented into the National Curriculum of Special Education, under the auspice of Dr Jeychandrans’ pilot programme, with approval from the Department of Education. (Details of this ‘Report on the pilot yoga study programme’ can be found at the end of this article.)

Six years previously in 1978, Dr Jeyachandran had initiated yogasanas (yoga postures) training for his special educators to teach small groups of special children as an experiment at Vijay Human Services. Two other educational psychologists assisted him managing this project in collaboration with the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, a yoga therapeutic centre registered with the Health Ministry.

The following three videos show interviews with these three psychologists: Dr Jeyachandran, Ms Vimla and Ms Lata in their respective training centres, along with demonstrations of the special educators’ and childrens’ yoga training sessions.

Note: At the time of my visit in January 1985 and up to quite recently, people with learning difficulties / intellectual disabilities were termed ‘mentally retarded’. In this report I will use the terms special child and children with learning difficulties, however mentally retarded is mentioned in the accompanying videos. Please allow 20 minutes for viewing these videos below, showing the unique yoga teacher-training programme, yoga being taught to groups in a special school, and the children’s pilot yoga class.

Bala Vihar Teacher Training Centre
Here I was invited to attend the teachers’ yoga training class. Both Dr P Jeyachandran and the Principal Ms V. Vimla greeted me warmly and escorted me into the long hall. Where four male teacher trainees were standing, and on the other side of a wall-divider about twenty female teacher trainees were, all waiting to start their weekly yoga class. The two groups inhaled during the expanding movements - which opened out their lungs - and exhaled to the sound of ‘ha’. I was very impressed with the beautiful atmosphere and unison of the groups.

Dr Jeyachandran said, “Our special children do not all understand the teachers’ instructions to breathe out, so what we now do is instruct then to make a sound as they breathe out. This has been the greatest innovation in the yoga programme, because the key to success in yoga with disabled students is the breathing, which is a means of controlling the vital life force. Also using sound ensures that all students are breathing out together, which helps them to perform in time with each other while at the same time it helps to govern the pace of the groups’ practice. If a student gasps for breath, this would indicate fatigue, and he should be stopped immediately and told to rest. “

Every week for one-hour the teacher trainees were taught the next lesson on yoga. Their yoga teacher showed then illustrations of the sequence to practice, and at the end of the session they had to copy these into their exercise books. So they could continue practice on their own each day, and gain experience to teach the same yogasanas to the children the following week.

At the end, some of the trainees told me of their personal benefits gained from the yoga practice such as: overcoming emotional problems with yoga breathing and relaxation; relief from severe back-ache caused by spondylitis; increased flexibility in hips; improved breathing and relief from chest infection; sense of enjoyment from the practice; and one man said he had considerable relief from various pains since practising yoga.

I was thrilled by their enthusiasm and thanked them for allowing us to video their yoga training.