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 Research and Experience

From research and experience I found that no one Posture (asana) has a specific therapeutic effect without a general tone-up of the whole bodily system. With this in mind, the Whole-Body-Movement system was formulated. The basis of the YOU & ME Yoga system - colour coding of the body and Postures - enables trainers to teach appropriate yoga techniques to their clients with learning difficulties and special needs. This is done by reference to the seven coloured areas of the body and twenty appropriately coloured Postures - from which individual sequences of Whole-Body-Movement are determined. The techniques are organised to suit the needs and abilities of the individual. Each sequence contains Postures to ensure that the whole body is being toned while the client is made aware of each part. 


The aim of Whole-Body-Movement is to treat the whole person and not just a particular part in isolation. This is done by acknowledging the area of the body needing most attention, identifying the colour associated with that area and selecting a Main Posture in the same colour. Then, one of each of the six remaining coloured Postures is chosen to complete a sequence of Whole-Body-Movement. The value of practising Whole-Body-Movement is that it helps clients gain awareness of their feelings and bodily sensations, which leads to a greater sense of being in control.

Disabled people have unusual individual needs, and practice of Yoga Postures will vary from one client to another. Clients who have a normal range of movement can usually do the Postures in the normal way. In addition, clients with a limited range of movement can also practise some modified techniques as shown in ‘YOU & ME Yoga Postures and Variations for Special Needs’. However, prior to practice of any yoga postures or variations of them, it is necessary to understand the clients’ abilities, to be aware of what they must not do, and to establish a good relationship with them. This all adds to the inclusive spirit that exists within the YOU & ME Yoga System. Practice is aimed at improving general health, span of attention, motor coordination and social interaction.

The suitability of yoga techniques for people with special needs have been worked out with careful consideration. This includes simple yet effective techniques involving the Joint Looseners for establishing the range of joint movements and the related Yoga Postures for safe practice. These 42 techniques do not require too much balance or physical effort and have been found adequate in dealing with a wide range of problems. Apart from being simple to grasp and relatively easy to perform, they lend themselves well to adaptation. It has also been found that using simple techniques allows the teacher to be more effective.

YOU & ME Joint Looseners and Variations for Special Needs (with 247 variations) and YOU & ME Yoga Postures and Variations for Special Needs (with 462 variations) are now on offer here.

In this 7-minute video I explain a set of five YOU & ME Yoga teaching materials for use in the classroom and/or for individual needs and abilities:



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Trainee Yoga Teacher's Testimonial


Gary Walshe with his YOU & ME Yoga modular training materials

I recently received my YOU & ME training materials, which consists of the 3 levels. I was initially impressed by each level's individual colourful folders and the bright, positive imagery within each module. Upon taking a deeper look into the contents of the programme, I was amazed by the amount of extensive information given through a variety of mediums i.e. audio-visual elements, workbooks, colour coding with fantastic illustrations, instruction cards, extensive case studies within the textbooks and the reproducible activity sheets. It appears that absolutely every angle is covered within the content, in supporting all individuals’ capabilities and clear instructions on how to devise person centred yoga programmes for each individual.

From the outset I was looking for a method of combining a number of my personal interest including: Yoga, Art, Creativity and my Career in working with individuals with both physical and intellectual disabilities. While I had experience teaching yoga to people from a mild to moderate range of intellectual disability, I struggled greatly with even considering teaching yoga to people with severe autism or extreme challenging behaviour. Upon further research I found Maria Gunstone and was immediately drawn to her, because of her own personal life story and her studies in India, as I hold a great connection with the country. I felt this was somewhat serendipitous and synchronised. I was in the early stages of planning my trip to India to explore a method of incorporating Yoga and Disability. I was then however very lucky to encounter Maria Gunstone's YOU & ME Yoga System. I now feel I have a positive guide with an array of experience who will assist me with this new journey. She is exactly what the disabilities sector in Ireland needs at this time and in the future.

I am now beginning my studies and am currently reading "The Origin of the YOU & ME Yoga System". Maria writes from the heart in an open, honest and loving manner that is truly inspiring. Her words invoke memories of my early experiences, why I began my path in yoga, the incredible lessons that I learned on that path and also from each of my masters. I am thoroughly excited about continuing my journey with my new inspirational teacher, Maria Gunstone.


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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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Autism yoga case-study


Jade’s YOU & ME Yoga
A report by Dharmani Hart

Background
Jade is a 46 year old with extreme communication and speech challenges. She is autistic, has learning difficulties and chronic epilepsy. Jade is able to respond to familiar behaviour patterns in a small way but her concentration span is almost nonexistent. Consequently her YOU & ME Yoga is mainly on a one to one basis.
Ability
Jade is tall and heavy-set, with excess weight being carried around her hips and thighs.  This results in certain movements being quite difficult for her to perform. 
As Jade has no concept of colour or numbers, she does not choose which Looseners or Postures to perform. However, Jade is encouraged to share in the process of choosing movements, so she does have some control over her yoga The blue, indigo and violet Loosener cards are used at every class to help body and spatial awareness. The orange cards have enabled Jade to work on strength and flexibility in her hips and lower back, areas that are both comparatively weak for Jade.
Progress
The first two classes consisted of mainly getting to know each other and using the Loosener cards to give Jade awareness of her own body with the ability to move freely in a safe and flexible way.
The YOU & ME Yoga programme has enabled Jade’s self-esteem and confidence to grow. Her love of yoga is evident when, at the end of each class when we work towards a salute of the sun, Jade excels. In fact, her behaviour in class is always excellent. She is always willing to work with any Loosener and Posture I ask of her and Jade’s support workers are impressed with her progress.
Dharmani Hart, Yoga Teacher, YOU & ME Practitioner, MacIntyre Care
In addition, here is a video of Maria Gunstone teaching Peter (with autistic tendencies) two of the Orange YOU & ME Joint Loosener techniques.

References:
YOU & ME Yoga Basic Techniques - CD tutorial
Loosener Dislay Cards Instruction Pack

Learning Difficulties and Associated Conditions Explained with YOGA CASE STUDIES
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Downs syndrome yoga case-study


John’s YOU & ME Yoga 
Case Study by Daniel Mold
Background
John who has Downs syndrome, age 23, has attended for three years at Orchard Hill College of FE, Carshalton, Surrey.  It was determined that it would be useful for John to engage in some physical activity to use and maintain his physical abilities and to help with weight control.  Thus two years ago John began the YOU & ME Yoga programme.  John showed little interest in sport, or adapted sport activities, but was interested in walking, obstacle courses and mat exercises.
Ability
John can move quite quickly although he likes to engage in tasks at a slower, more careful pace.  He usually chooses not to use his verbal language skills and as a result of this it is hard for staff at the College to identify problems when John is frustrated or unhappy.  It was thought that yoga might provide a way for John to express himself.
Progress
John was keen to participate in the yoga group from the very beginning.  The group is small and each session lasts for thirty minutes.  After watching a demonstration he copies the Postures quite easily.  John chooses the Postures he wants to carry out by pointing to the printed cards.
John has practised YOU & ME Yoga at least twice a week over the last two years and can now complete most of the Postures independently.  The yoga session begins by sitting crossed legged on a mat and John will do this without needing to be asked.  He has gained the confidence to use his voice during yoga sessions - he knows the names of the Looseners and Postures and occasionally says which ones he would like to try.
John’s general confidence has grown.  He will demonstrate movements to others in the yoga group, something that he was reluctant to do in the early stages.  Also, yoga has been a means of new staff developing a trusting relationship with him.
When John does the Cat Posture, he imitates the action of a cat licking a dish when his head is down.  This initiation of communication through mime has led to John beginning a drama course, which he also thoroughly enjoys.

Here is a video showing different students in different parts of the UK performing the Cat Posture in their very special way.