Using yoga with autistic pupils

Jyoti Manuel, founder and Lead Practitioner at Special Yoga, explores why they believe that yoga and mindfulness approaches can benefit autistic pupils and staff in schools.

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Author: Jyoti Manuel

Using yoga with autistic pupils

Special Yoga is an organisation that offers yoga therapy programmes to children and adults with special needs. We provide yoga classes to individuals, families and schools, and we also offer training programmes to share Special Yoga’s practises to educators, parents, carers and paediatric professionals.
The methodology that we use at Special Yoga includes the classical yoga practices of:
deep relaxation.
These are combined with:
sensory integration techniques.
Sensory integration techniques aim to improve body awareness and balance, helping us to be aware of our own body and how it interacts with the environment.
We meet every child, both in individual and in group sessions, with the aim of creating a practice that encourages them to their fullest potential. Celebrating the strength within each child and working from there. 
Yoga is simply the process of paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind. We aim to help the child retrain his/her automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness and overall well-being. 
Why yoga in the classroom?
Classrooms can be very stressful environments for autistic children for reasons such as sensory difficulties and the requirement for high levels of social interaction. Many autistic children will also experience high levels of anxiety which can present with breathing patterns that are out of regulation. Frequent shallow breathing and breathing through the mouth consistently stimulate the sympathetic nervous system at a low level. This means that being ‘stressed out’ becomes the norm.
When the nervous system reacts with a fright or flight response, breathing quickens and becomes shallower. When we slow the breath we change the physiological response. By consciously slowing the breath, especially the exhalation, we can facilitate the relaxation response and develop some control over how our nervous systems responds to our environment. We develop the ability to change our emotional state. 
Working with the breath can therefore effectively ‘wake up’ or ‘calm down’ the child. We might for example:
put the child’s hand on their belly to ‘feel’ their breath
stretch the body to help open up the capacity for the breath -  rhythmic movements of arms up and down done slowly can really help here. 
Mindfulness and yoga
In 2016 the Special Yoga team was commissioned by Havering Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to develop a programme to build up mental health resilience in the 80 schools within the borough of Havering. 
We designed three mindfulness programmes, each consisting of 6 hours split over three sessions:
mindfulness for the staff
techniques to explain mindfulness to pupils
additional tools to integrate the practice into the curriculum for both staff and pupils.
The results indicated that the programme had a positive influence on both teachers’ and pupils’ emotional wellbeing and resilience. The training programme provided teachers with useful strategies to manage their own stress levels. 
Teachers were able to successfully integrate regular mindfulness practices into the curriculum. Results suggested an increase in pupils’ emotional wellbeing and resilience after being exposed to mindfulness practices in the classroom.
The benefits of using yoga in the classroom
I believe that it is imperative for teachers and staff within schools to develop and learn calming techniques for themselves so that they can hold a more balanced and peaceful space for the children. From our experience of running a daily programme in the classrooms we found that when the children and staff practised yoga together in the morning and in some cases again after the lunch break, that the children were more organised in their functionality and emotions and therefore more able to manage and self-regulate themselves - learning then became more possible. 
In our experience any of the movements used in yoga can balance and regulate the vestibular and proprioceptive systems that help the child to know where they are in space and to be more comfortable. 
We have seen many autistic children become so much calmer and happier through the practise of yoga. Parents report back that the children have improvements in:
quality and quantity of sleep
body awareness (eating, toileting etc)
motor planning and control skills
physical strength, muscle tone and balance
self-regulation and resilience
ability to transition from one activity to another without stress.
Further information
For information on how we bring special yoga to your school, please visit our website.