“Love every child without condition, listen with an open heart, get to know who they are, what they love, and follow more often than you lead.” – Adele Devine
Very recently, an increasing number of educational and mental health professionals have started to use altered language in relation to the label of autism; Autism Spectrum Disorder is increasingly becoming Autism Spectrum Condition. This change goes some way towards acknowledging that autism is not a disorder but simply a set of observable phenomena, without assuming that there is anything intrinsically ‘wrong’ with the child in any way.
What is Autism Spectrum Condition?
According to the official diagnostic criteria, an Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) affects the ways in which an individual communicates and interacts with others and experiences the world around them. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines ASC in terms of social communication difficulties and repetitive and restrictive behaviours. Recent figures estimate that approximately 1% of the population in the United Kingdom has an ASC (Baird et al., 2006; Brugha, McManus and Bankard, 2011), which is almost twelve times higher than estimates made in the 1970s (Rutter, 1978). Together with their families, there are at least two million people whose lives are affected by ASC every single day.
Children with ASC often experience co-occurring difficulties with stress and anxiety (Simonoff et al, 2008), with a significant proportion presenting with clinical anxiety or high levels of anxiety traits (White et al., 2009). The presence of such anxiety has been associated with, and even proposed to be caused by, sensory hyper-reactivity (Green and Ben-Sasson, 2010); current estimates indicate that more than 80% of children with ASD exhibit co-occurring sensory processing difficulties (Ben-Sassoon, Hen and Fluss, 2009) which can make the world seem extremely overwhelming for them for much of the time.
Mindful Parenting for Children with ASC
The Special Yoga Foundation in London has pioneered the sharing of yoga with children with ASC for more than a decade. Their work is based on a firm foundation of scientific evidence. In terms of mindfulness based interventions, two recent studies have investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness for promoting positive behaviour change and improving the quality of life of children with ASC. In one study of three mother-and-child pairs, in which the child had been diagnosed with ASC (Singh et al, 2006), mothers were trained in mindfulness-based practices for 12 weeks, followed by a practice phase of 52 weeks, with decreased levels of aggression, noncompliance and self-injury in the children being cited as significant outcomes by the researchers, despite the fact that the children did not engage in any mindfulness training of their own.
Such findings uphold the postulation of earlier researchers that mindful parenting opens up a developmental pathway, which produces positive, bi-directional parent-child interactions and has a beneficial impact on the child’s behaviour and sense of wellbeing. In another study, the first study of its kind to evaluate the use of a mindfulness-based approach known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in ASD (Pahnke, Lundgren, Hursti and Hirvikoski, 2013), 28 pupils with ASD aged 13 – 21 years were randomly assigned to an ACT intervention or a wait list. In the outcome measures for the intervention group, a decrease in pupil and teacher stress, pupil hyperactivity and pupil emotional symptoms were cited alongside increased pro-social behaviours.
How Children with ASC can Benefit from Yoga
In terms of yoga specifically, researchers have suggested that deep pressure from the strengthening asanas (poses) may provide relief from the constant over-stimulation of the nervous system known to be an element of ASC, promoting greater sensory integration (Radhakrishna, Nagarathna and Nagendra, 2010). Yoga asanas may also provide a present-moment focal point for children with ASC, who often feel overwhelmed by body sensations (Salmon et al, 2009).
Yoga has been shown to reduce the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Shannahoff-Khalsa and Beckett, 1996), many traits of which are shared by children with ASC (Zandt, Prior and Kyrios, 2009). As we have already mentioned, stress and anxiety have been identified as core difficulties in ASC, both of which have been shown to be alleviated by regular yoga practice (Telles et al, 1997). In a small-scale study of 6 children with ASC, an 82-week yoga intervention (5 hour-long yoga sessions per week) was demonstrated to promote significant changes in communication, language, play and joint attention in addition to a significant reduction in anxiety (Radhakrishna et al., 2010).
Yoga can provide a rich multitude of benefits for children with an ASC, with the soothing of stress and anxiety being just the tip of the iceberg. To find out more about the work of the Special Yoga Foundation, who offer a vast array of specialist trainings including yoga for children with autism spectrum conditions, please visit their website at www.specialyoga.org.uk.
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Ben-Sasson A., Hen, L. and Fluss, R., (2009) A meta-analysis of sensory modulation symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39: 1–11.
Brugha, T.S., McManus, S. and Bankart, J. (2011) Epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders in adults in the community in England. Archives of General Psychiatry 68: 459–465.
Green, S. and Ben-Sasson, A. (2010) Anxiety disorders and sensory over-responsivity in children with autism spectrum disorders: is there a causal relationship? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(12): 1495–1504.
Radhakrishna, S., Nagarathna, R., and Nagendra, H. (2010) Integrated Approach to Yoga Therapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 1:2.
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Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Charman, T., Chandler, S., Loucas, T. and Baird, G. (2008) Psychiatric disorders in children with autism spectrum disorders: prevalence, comorbidity, and associated factors in a population-derived sample. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47: 921–929.
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Telles,S., Hanumanthajah, B., Nagarathna, R. and Nagendra, H. (1993). Improvement in static motor performance following yogic training of school children. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 76 (3): 1264-1266.
White, S., Oswald, D., Ollendick, T. and Scahill, L. (2009) Anxiety in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 29: 216–229.
Zandt, F., Prior, M. and Kyrios, M. (2009). Similarities and differences between children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder and those with obsessive compulsive disorder; executive functioning and repetitive behaviour. Autism 13 (1) 43-57.