When a child in her special education class is overstimulated or agitated, Jane Gonzalez goes right to her yoga practice. She calmly heads over, gently guides the youngster to lie on her back, holds her feet in the air and slowly rocks her back and forth. For the five- to six-year-old kids on the autism spectrum in her class, this is one of many techniques she uses to calm the body, ground the mind, and help the child focus.
Gonzalez, a yoga-certified assistant teacher, learned this and many other ways to adapt yoga practices for children on the spectrum during a weeklong teacher-training program in New Jersey taught by Sharon Manner. Nine others joined Gonzalez in the first Ashrams for Autism teacher-training program.
A yoga teacher for over 20 years, Manner had often taught her own daughter, also on the spectrum, yoga postures and breathing techniques. Seeing the positive effects they had for Kerri, now 21, she launched Ashrams for Autism, to bring these practices into the lives of kids and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. The program now offers after-school workshops, weekend classes, and teacher-training programs, and aspires to be a full-blown ashram—a place where young adults on the spectrum like Kerri can live, work, play and develop their own sense of self-worth and self-knowledge to take with them into the world.
Yoga for special needs kids
Traditionally, Hindu ashrams have been havens of quiet reflection away from the distractions of the outside world. This peaceful and balanced atmosphere may lend itself well to the autism community’s needs, an environment that is less stimulating and softer on sensory processing issues. But additionally, ashrams have always also been a place of learning, where skills can be acquired and brought to bear on problems outside the walls.
Yoga developed especially for special needs children isn’t a new concept—Sonia Sumar’s program has been around since the 1970’s—but yoga practices designed to address specific issues that arise from specific disorders are just beginning to emerge, and teaching these are a core part of Manner’s program.
What does Manner teach? Some typical yoga poses would be over-stimulating for some young people with autism, and some yoga breathing techniques could even bring about seizures. Instead, she teaches a combination of high-energy, fun dance movements and calming, relaxing, and grounding poses.
She says typically they have a chanting session (vibrations of chanting are soothing), then do seated poses, followed by balancing, clapping and dancing, alternating with periods of deep calming breathing techniques (so students can learn to calm themselves after periods of high energy).
Gonzalez says that her kindergarten- and first-grade-aged students love chanting, and that older students report that the calming techniques they learned help them in frustrating situations.
Manner instructs teacher trainees on how to be mindful of the needs of each person in the class, to be sensitive to sensory processing issues, and to be aware of their own sense of calm and balance, which kids will pick up on.
The vision for Ashrams for Autism came together when her daughter aged out of school-based programs for kids on the spectrum, and Manner worried about how Kerri could continue to cultivate a healthy lifestyle. She invited prominent teachers and advisors in the metro-area yoga community to sit on the board as she began to apply for grants and form connections with schools.
A sustainable community
If she has learned one thing since starting this project, Manner says, it’s that many in the young adult autism community feel that they are not being heard. They want to cultivate a voice to raise awareness about their issues and their identity, address the stigma associated with autism, and demonstrate their potential. She envisions a place where they can do exactly that—a sustainable community where there are daily responsibilities, such as running cafes and juice bars, that encourage dignity and engagement as part of a community. A place that teaches them how to become ambassadors for healthy changes that positively contribute both to the autism community and to society at large.
Gonzalez echoed the sentiment that many children with autism feel automatically dismissed and discounted because of their unique relationship to the environment; yoga can teach them ways to manage sensitivity to stimulation, improve their coping skills, and lead a more peaceful life. Young adults on the spectrum, she adds, should be able to look forward, as they age out of special education, to being part of a community where they can contribute and continue to grow.