In addition to our typical PreK – 12 in-school (although virtual for now) yoga programs, ZENworks Yoga also teaches yoga and mindfulness in several classrooms with students who have special needs, including autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Autism spectrum disorder occurs in 1 out of 59 people and is characterized by social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Since the 1970s, April has been recognized as Autism Acceptance Month. (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/addm.html).
While the advantages of yoga and wellness are well documented in kids of all ages, children with disabilities often benefit immensely from the lessons in self-awareness and mindfulness that are taught during a yoga practice. All of our yoga and mindfulness programs generally have the same components, but depending on the student population being worked with, can also include movement, managing behaviors and expectations, and a bit of sensory engagement. Our instructors simply adapt and modify for the students they are working with at that moment.
“Yoga and mindfulness allow everyone an opportunity to begin to understand their internal selves…the chatter of the mind, the sensations in the body…when, where and why they might occur, and the ebb and flow of the emotional waves we all ride each day,” says Jennifer Griest Hayes, ZENworks Yoga director of curriculum and former intervention specialist. “Sometimes people assume that because a person does not communicate in a typical way, has limited speech, cognitive delays or motor delays/reactions, that he/she does not have an emotional self.”
When working with students who have special needs, our instructors frequently teach at a slower pace to allow kids to process, and notice or feel what is happening inside their brain and bodies and acknowledge it through touch, pictures, words, or even nothing at all. Props are especially helpful to work with the sensory system of the student and can help engagement in any activity. Props include typical yoga tools like blocks, straps, etc, but also visual aids, such as books, YouTube videos, and yoga pose prop cards; tactile tools such as bubbles, kinetic sand, or rocks; and items that stimulate olfactory (smell) senses such as essential oils or scented lotions (if tolerated).
“Giving an individual choice in tools/props, and having the initial connection to his/her body/brain, gives ownership and empowerment that is often overlooked and/or not offered in other places,” says Griest Hayes. “The benefits are limitless, but the practices of yoga and mindfulness, (especially those that provide an element of self-awareness) the intentional sequences, the ‘literal’ always-on-you tools like breath and simple movement, the ability to slow down and go at an individual’s pace, the idea that one can build his or her own “toolbox” of inner resources: go-to breaths, movements, mindfulness practices – it’s mind-blowing how every single person can have his/her own “Yoga IEP”* and be successful.”
*IEP = individualized education plan, a written document that’s developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education.