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Can yoga help kids with autism?

In 2018, after leaving her corporate role to open up a small business, 34-year-old Sarah began to experience sleeplessness, anxiety, and rapid weight gain. She began to withdraw from her family – husband Danny, then 12-year-old David and then 6-year-old Lucas, who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder two years before.

“As you can imagine, it was just a storm, a really tumultuous, difficult period in my life,” shares Sarah. “It’s a very scary thing to leave a regular paycheck for an unproven business, first of all. Having a special needs child is a job by itself. In retrospect, I have to say I have no idea what I was thinking, because I feel like I really jeopardized a lot of things… my family’s finances, our commitment to each other, and really, mostly, Lucas.”

On one of what Sarah describes as one of her most challenging days, Lucas had a meltdown in the backyard. Typically, Sarah says, “I’d have been prepared for that. We’d all been to therapy, I was perfectly equipped and educated on how to manage situations like that.

“But that afternoon, I had a meltdown too. It was really hard. It was really painful.”

Luckily, a kind neighbor witnessed the scene and came by.

“Ash is a yoga instructor, and she had me breathing gently and centering myself within minutes,” says Sarah. “And somehow, she had this magic touch with Lucas too. I was like, ‘Why haven’t I ever come to her before?’”

That week, Sarah and Lucas were enrolled in a parent-and-child yoga class, and Sarah says she’s never looked back.

Turns out that there’s mounting evidence that yoga isn’t just good for adults under stress; it’s pretty darned beneficial for kids with autism too.

Because kids with autism are challenged with self-regulation, their moods and behavior are often affected by external and internal stimuli and they have a difficult time managing it all. The breathing and poses taught in yoga help with self-regulation, and has been found to be effective in reducing negative moods and behavioral issues.

Yoga is also great at improving gross motor development, as well as imitation. While some kids with autism might have a hard time mirroring other movements or behaviors, the creativity and simplicity of yoga pose patterns are easy to copy. It’s a great space to learn how to better imitate movements and behaviors.

As Sarah discovered, yoga helps with stress and anxiety (it’s been used in treatment and recovery programs for stress, anxiety and depressive disorders for years). Kids with autism find themselves having a tough time with managing their stress responses, so yoga’s calming effect is a great addition to their activities.

Another benefit of yoga is that it introduces and maintains a person’s self-discipline. Yoga for kids with autism isn’t as structured as it might be for a neurotypical adult, for example, but it’s still pretty disciplined and provides routine. If you enroll your child in yoga sessions, make sure the classes are at the same time each week, so that your child can find comfort in expecting the activity on a specific day and a specific time. This creates trust and stability.

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