You may have heard of Occupational Therapy, or “OT” as the commonly used acronym is concerned. But what exactly is OT? “In its simplest terms, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations)” (www.aota.org). Now you may be thinking to yourself what does Occupational Therapy have to do with kids, they are just kids, what occupation could they possibly have? Well just that, being a kid.
While you may be scratching your head at this point thinking to yourself how hard could it possibly be to be a kid, it can actually be very cumbersome for some children. With an increase in demands being placed on our children these days, a decrease in recreational time, as well as overwhelming stimuli being thrown at them from every angle, it is a wonder any kid is able to even get through childhood at all, let alone enjoy the simplest aspects of being a kid.
When we think about the sensory system we can immediately bring to mind the five we have been taught since we ourselves where children; sight (Vision), hearing (Auditory), touch (Tactile), taste (Gustatory), and smell (Olfactory). Although these five have been embedded in our minds, there are far more senses that comprise our intricate sensory system. Two of the less commonly known senses that greatly affect our daily living are Proprioception and Vestibular; Proprioception being an awareness of our bodies in space, and Vestibular being balance, gravity, and movement information through our inner ear. With these senses our bodies process information and organize it in the central nervous system (CNS) of our brain and spinal cord, so that we are able to understand, react, and interact with the world around us. But what happens when our bodies, or our children’s, don’t quite interpret this information quite as it should, throwing the balance of our processing and understanding of the world around us completely off kilter?
In children with sensory processing delays, or disorders (SPD), there tends to be an inability to respond appropriately to their environments, which can cause hypo and hypersensitivities, as well as adversarial reactions to compensate for this confusing stimulus. We tend to see those with sensory processing delays become over-reactive or under-reactive (hyper and hypo aroused) depending on the way their bodies perceive the given sensory input. These reactions can present themselves in a multitude of behaviors from avoidance and withdrawal, opposition and aggression, fear, fidgets, attention issues, and so on and so forth.
So here is where our yoga comes in. You may or may not hear a yoga teacher saying the quote, “Yoga is the control of the activities of the mind” (translation by Georg Feuerstein). Yoga teachers of many years ago had a very deep understanding of how we can use yoga to create clarity and balance between the mind and the body. These ideologies are something, to which modern Western science is now catching up to, in the present time where more open dialogues are occurring between Western and Eastern philosophies on Health Care.
Now the question remains how can we take this ancient theory and apply it to modern science and health, and even more specifically to our littlest of yogis that are struggling to find and feel balance in their world. Occupational Therapists use therapeutic sessions that include sensory experiences (sensory integration) that helps to elicit adaptive responses that can help patients have a more accurate picture of the world, and in turn have more appropriate responses to promote a general sense of ease in their daily lives. Yoga provides a means for this sensory experience that can be done in an OT’s office, yoga studio, home, school, or just about anywhere.
In yoga we can practice manipulating our bodies in space to receive the sensory input we need to process the world around us. From there we can learn those adaptive skills needed to see the world around us in an accurate way. As we work through the heavy work of the yoga asanas and pair it with a mindful breathing practice and mindful meditation or focus practice, we can begin to clear the pathways within our nervous system to work towards achieving balance and clarity that can occur when the mind and body are working together in a synchronized cadence.
ABOUT JESSI (OT YOGI)
Jessie is currently working on her Masters Degree focusing on Occupational Therapy. She is an RYT, RCYT with Yoga Alliance, and has taken a number of yoga trainings. She is a graduate of Little Flower Yoga and uniting her passion of yoga with children and helping others.
Each month we will take an inquiry or subject (proposed by you) and offer direction and feedback. Feel free to write in with your concerns or questions and we will answer and provide all the advice we can offer.
Increasingly there has become more interest regarding yoga and autism. If you are a parent or professional of a child with this exceptionality, you perhaps know the challenges that may be a part of their daily routines. Yoga is beneficial and an ideal practice to help with self-regulation, improved behavior, balance, strength, and focus.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or similar disabilities like Sensory Integration Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, High Functioning Autism and Classic Autism, have been found to benefit from the tools of yoga and mindfulness. When we become better informed we can help to communicate to our young learners, which for me is the key to providing an effective and fun class.
When searching online I seem to find so much information that I often become frustrated. This inspired me to create a list of helpful resources so that I could navigate through the wealth of data out there. I have found the below books, websites and tools very helpful and hope you will too.
1. Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs by Louise Goldberg
For use in school, at home, or in therapeutic settings, Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs is a how-to manual that meets children where they are, providing a yoga therapy "lesson plan" that will engage them; promote play, social interaction, speech, language, and motor development; and enhance their self-esteem. It teaches an array of Creative Relaxation techniques using posture, breathing, and mindfulness designed specifically for children with autism and special needs. Drawing on her 30 years of yoga therapy experience with children and those who work with them, the author walks readers through yoga strategies that both calm and energize, emphasizing sensory and bodily awareness and the "sacred space" that is so important for these children. Learn the best ways to use your voice and body effectively when working with children; how to minimize distractions and ease transitions; and how to create personalized yoga breaks to enhance independence and avert meltdowns.
Featuring 60 illustrated poses, 89 photos, and 65 lessons, songs, and games, child-friendly instructions are provided for posture, breathing, and mindfulness exercises. All poses and routines include suggested adaptations and precautions for use, and are organized to address specific sensory skills. Current research on the benefits of yoga for health and learning is summarized, and readers learn how, through yoga practice, the brain’s response to stress can be effectively mitigated.
With this book, parents, therapists, and educators alike have the tools to successfully develop a therapeutic yoga program for the very children who can benefit most from it.
2. Yoga for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents and Caregivers by Dion E. Betts
Having successfully used yoga to combat the stress of their own busy lives, Dion and Stacey Betts discovered its potential for their son Joshua, who has Asperger Syndrome. This fully-illustrated book combines the authors' professional expertise with their experience of parenting, offering a range of gentle and fun yoga positions and breathing techniques that are effective in dealing with the increased levels of anxiety, disorientation and tactile sensitivity often found in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). The authors give step-by-step descriptions of warming-up, strengthening, calming and tension-releasing exercises that are suitable for reducing coping mechanisms, such as hand-flapping and increasing muscle tone, muscle strength and body awareness. They also offer a range of short and long sequences that can be tailored to fit the needs of the individual child. Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders is ideal for parents and caregivers who want to use simple yoga techniques to help children with ASDs overcome some of the symptoms of the disorder.
3. Yoga for Children with Special Needs (DVD) by Aras Baskauskas, Yoga Instructor, Britt Collins, M.S. OTR/L
Yoga promotes mental and physical well-being, allowing kids to strengthen their bodies while simultaneously calming themselves. Occupational Therapy benefits children by helping focus energy into appropriate movement and function, organizing sensory systems and increasing body awareness and coordination skills.
Yoga helps children to grade the force of their movements because the slow movements and poses are not pushing their muscles to full extension. Children increase muscle strength while developing body awareness and where their body is in space. Yoga also helps both gross and fine motor strength, breath support, and concentration skills.
** This DVD is for children who have the ability to stand, bend down and touch the ground, and can imitate and follow directions.
Running Time approximately 60 Minutes.
4. National Autism Resources – Effective and fun teaching materials for Autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger’s, etc.
5. 22 Tips for Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Helpful website that provides suggestions for teaching and helping kids who have ASD
I have found with my 4 year old that the Yoga Decks/Cards work well. He gets a huge kick from picking the cards from the box and he adores the pictures. We do the best we can while having fun with the pose. We often make up a rhyme or story about the picture or create a game, and sometimes we even create a craft or project. There are occasions when we get to a few moments of breath work and even a savasana. There are other moments when we move around and be silly. And there are other occasions when we take a break and move on with our day after 5 minutes. Again, depending on the day and the mood, we simply do the best we can to feel good inside.
Below is an additional list of research and interesting data on the topic.