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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"I have seen great improvements in the students' abilities in the following areas: balance, strength, coordination, body awareness, breath control, posture control, relaxation skills, and social skills.”
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