Yoga and Exercise Can Help Autistic Individuals Manage Meltdowns and Self Regulation
For many of us, the New Year brings resolutions that often include exercise and diet goals for renewed health. Regular exercise is essential to your good health, but did you know it can also help an autistic person self-regulate and manage stress? Coach Dave Geslak has created exercise programs for people on the autism spectrum using structure and visual supports. The Exercise Connection program emphasizes these five points:
- Body Image
- Motor Coordination
- Muscular Fitness
- Cardiovascular Fitness
Geslak is also the author of a fitness book called The Autism Fitness Handbook: An Exercise Program to Boost Body Image, Motor Skills, Posture and Confidence in Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Designed to address specific areas of difficulty for children, teens and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the 46 exercises in this comprehensive program are proven to improve body image, motor coordination, posture, muscular and cardiovascular fitness. The boost to confidence, relationships and general wellbeing resulting from this will be transformative for individuals with ASD and their families.
Useful exercise for different issues arising from Autism Spectrum Disorders
Team sports like soccer, baseball, hockey etc…can have health benefits, afford opportunities for socialization, and, in some cases, may help prevent problem behavior such as aggression. For those looking for the social aspect, this works particularly well if peers who have been taught to serve as tutors or models are available during the activity. Smaller “team” sports that are more one-on-one (like tennis), can also be good as there is an opportunity to look for a sport partner that is educated in how to interact positively with those with autism.
Yoga is not only good for a person’s physical body, it also promotes self-regulation, aids in relaxation, and helps to alleviate stress. There are 5 basic yoga poses that are simple to use, and may prevent meltdowns. There is also a You Tube clip called Good Night Yoga (based on a book by the same name with lovely illustrations) which can help settle children for bedtime pose by pose. For more ideas on how to implement yoga, have a look at Asanas for Autism and Special Needs. Peaceful Pathways yoga studio has collected a number of articles about yoga and special needs.
The 5 basic yoga poses for helping to prevent meltdowns for autistic individuals
- Child’s pose with “Bee Breath”.
In this posture your child sits on their knees, places their forehead on the floor with their arms stretched out behind them. Good Night Yoga makes this pose even more fun and calming by adding a “bee’s breath”. In order to breathe like a bee your child simply inhales from the floor up to sitting, and then takes a deep deep breath, and buzzes like a bee all the way back down to the post on the floor. Children love to buzz like a bee, and the big breaths are perfect for soothing the nervous system.
- Cat- Cow pose.
In Good Night Yoga, this pose is just the cat part, but the cow is pretty fun too! Normally they are paired together. To do the poses your child should get on their hands and knees, and can start by inhaling into the cat, followed by exhaling and “mooing” into the cow. The deep breathing with gentle spine movement in this pose helps release tension and calm the body.
Cat: inhale and arch your back like a cat as high as you can.
Cow: exhale and arch your back the other way so that your belly drops towards the mat and you are looking at the ceiling. Let your exhale come out as a loud MOOOOO if you like.
- Tree Pose. The concentration required to get into, and hold, this pose is great for quieting the mind. To get into Tree Pose, have your child pick which leg they feel most balanced on. Then they lift the other leg and place it on the thigh at – or above- the knee, as high up as they can. Once they can get their balance ( they might need to use their arms for this), they can then place their hands together as if in prayer, and breathe deeply for as many breaths as they can.
Tips: This pose can be pretty funny as most people will flop about a bit at first. It can be fun for a child to see which leg they are stronger and more balanced on (there is usually one side that is easier). If this is too difficult, the child can back up against a wall, and use the wall to support them while they find their balance.
- Child’s pose with visualization. Child’s pose can be a very comforting “safe space”. The entire spine is supported on your own legs, and it offers a deep place to relax with a similar “curled up” feeling that many people find soothing when they are overwhelmed. To do this pose, your child simply goes into the face down posture of the child’s pose of the first posture, and stays there breathing deeply. They can place their hands before them on the floor, or behind them.
Tip: It can be good to take this a step further by having the child visualize something they find soothing. For some children this can be inhaling pink clouds, or floating on clouds. It’s important to find something that YOUR child finds comforting and soothing for this visualization, as some children might find clouds scary or disorienting. Visualization – or meditation- can be a very powerful tool for self-regulation.
Final tips? Have fun, and learn these tools before you need them
Our son does yoga once a week with a private instructor. He is able to use his breathing techniques throughout the week to keep calm and his strength and flexibility have increased. Yoga has kept him mobile in spite of having advanced arthritis.
If you want to add yoga to your child’s toolbox of self-regulation, it is best to learn the postures in a calm/fun/non-stressful environment, so that when your child needs to use them to self regulate they are already well practiced. Adding these poses to your night-time ritual can be a great way to not only prepare your child for a calming sleep, but links the poses to a calm, relaxed and safe space for your child.
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