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Teaching Yoga to teens with Autism

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My eldest son Rafi is 16 this month and has ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). He ticks a lot of those quirky ASD characteristics we so often read about or see in films featuring characters with autism.

He suffers from crippling social anxiety yet can talk to you for hours (yes, hours) about transitional metals. His favourite ones right now are osmium and tungsten.

It’s a daily battle for him fitting in to a big loud mainstream school and its “tedious and irrelevant” curriculum. Every night he tries to calm his racing mind to get a few hours of sleep. Life is often hard for him so when he smiles my heart melts.

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I sometimes refer to him when teaching Yoga. Although it seems to Rafi that he is on the outside of human life as an observer, he has to learn how participate. He has to learn independence, how to deal with people and everyday situations and to manage his anxiety.

So for him life is a daily struggle- as is for all of us to a lesser extent. His life in many ways is an exaggeration of the difficulties we all face.
He hates physical exercise but sometimes joins my yoga classes and, occasionally, he even enjoys himself.

The non competition, the choice of pose level and the fact that he doesn’t have to communicate, or even look into any one’s eyes are big draws.

The slow steady pace of poses is comforting, breathing exercises help calm his anxiety and meditation is helping him to know his thought patterns. Becoming more aware of his body, it’s growing strength and how he can now coordinate movements is something we both marvel in.

Bella, one of my regular Yoga students, has been volunteering at workshops and camps helping kids and teens with Autism spectrum disorder since she was a teenager. When she asked me to teach a Yoga class at a 3 day residential camp, I was very happy to get involved.

There were to be 20 or so nuero typical -“normal”- teens, and 25 teens with ASD and a few with others challenges such as Down’s Syndrome. They were sharing dorms, going on excursions, making stuff and having a lot of fun together.

I love the idea of joining these diverse groups of people so they can experience how the other world lives.

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Class conditions weren’t ideal. We were over 50 people with a huge range of abilities, in a big echoey school gym with no mats. People with ASD are sensorially very sensitive. Light needed to be as dim as possible, and visual distractions moved from the sides and front of the room. They had set up a microphone and speakers for me, but my normal voice and lots of mirrored demonstrations worked better as people with ASD are nearly always better at visual rather than auditory learning.

People with ASD also find a long run of different instructions difficult to process so I knew I needed to keep instructions very simple and logical, moving from simple to more complex with lots of repetition.

On the day I met with Bella and her colleagues I asked them to mix in and be part of the class so that if the kids couldn’t hear or see me, they had other visual guides. I also asked them to let the kids make get things wrong. This needed to be said as in Singapore conforming is paramount.

I wanted it clear that it didn’t matter if they didn’t do all I said and that they shouldn’t adjust or touch them. Even a seemingly harmless pat on the back can be disturbing to people with ASD.

The supervisors got it and they were great.

In fact everyone was amazing. It ending up being one of the most gratifying class I have ever taught.

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Everyone was completely focused and whenever I looked at their sweaty faces, I saw either beaming smiles or complete concentration. I gave a quick thumbs up to a guy with downs syndrome when after multiple tries he finally nailed tree pose and could almost touch the sweet pride radiating from his smile.

After working on bite sized chunks and variations in sun salutations and then simple standing poses, as the class was going smoothly, I threw in Half Moon for fun. There was laughter all round. Many of them were cheering for each other as they tried again and again in fits of giggles to balance. They’d never done this weird stuff with their bodies before.

It was new, a little risky and it was fun.

That evening after I left, Bella kept sending me images of them throwing poses together in the canteen, the gym and dorms. Receiving those images was bigger than any payment I could have asked for.

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Directly after class one guy plucked up the courage to come and talk to me. With no eye contact he said hurriedly;

“You know that bit at the end, where you said what that word Namaste means about the light energy in us and how it’s the same in us all, and all that ”
“Yes” I said
“Is that really true? Do we all really have something inside that is the same in all of us and are we all really connected, together. The same. Really?”
“Well, yes I think we are”
“Alright. I like that. Good. Goodbye”

So I encourage you teachers -well trained and experienced- to not be nervous about teaching people on the spectrum or with other challenges.

If the statistics we read are right, worldwide the proportion of people with Autism is getting higher. This is a growing community of people and whether young or old they can really benefit from Yoga.

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A Yoga class offers people with ASD a break from social anxiety but is also safe place to get used to being around others. And with regular practice within a known group, they are given a chance to feel a sense of community and belonging, something I know my Rafi really needs.

Yoga class is a safe place to move the body and grow spiritually with no pressure or expectations. I hope studios will soon be offering specific classes to teens and adults on the spectrum or at least making people with ASD feel welcome in public classes.

Bella and her team saw Yoga as a tool to bridge the gap for two groups of people living very different lives.

I see Yoga as a tool for people with ASD to understand themselves and perhaps more significantly, as a way to make safe in-roads into this big scary world.

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Sarah is originally from the UK and was introduced to Yoga as a teenager at school. She began teaching Yoga in Granada, Spain in 2007. She is a 500 hour YogaMaze graduate and lives in Singapore with her family where she teaches Yoga full time. www.sarahbyoga.net