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World Autism Awareness Day: Yoga can help autistic kids overcome anxiety, repetitive behaviours

Practising yoga can help kids with ASD to enhance their social and communicative behaviours. ©Shutterstock

Yoga can benefit children with autism in more ways than one. On this World Autism Awareness Day, we tell you how it helps manage the manifestations of this neurodevelopmental disorder.

Written by Aishwarya Vaidya |Updated : April 2, 2021 1:55 PM IST

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is more than just a neurodevelopmental condition. It comes with a set of manifestations that are challenging to cope with, both for the children suffering from the condition and their parents. A kid with autism, a condition included in the group of diseases covered by ASD, is unable to comprehend the verbal and body language of others and channelise her own emotion in the appropriate way. She may also find it difficult to speak, communicate through expressions, focus and hold her attention span, and pick up social behavioural skills. All these affect the social and academic life of a child with autism from the beginning of her life. The symptoms start showing up within the first 2 years of life and last for a lifetime. Though the medicines and therapies available for autism spectrum disorder are known to yield significant benefits, the results will be better if they are complemented with yoga therapy. According to a study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Integrated Approach to Yoga Therapy improves the social and communicative behaviours of children with ASD, improve their imitating capacity and overall life quality.

Along with offering various fitness benefits, yoga also helps autistic kids in overcoming anxiety, stress and repetitive behaviours which affect their communication and academic skills and sleep cycle. So, this mind-body technique, which includes a host of breathing techniques and has a calming effect on the central nervous system, aids in enhancing many crucial functions of people with autism. On this World Autism Awareness Day, we tell you how yoga benefits children with autism. But make sure that your child practises yoga under the guidance of a trained professional.

Helps them focus

Dr Avinash D souza, psychiatrist and co-founder of Desousa Foundation, says, "There are some studies that have proven the usefulness of yoga for kids with autism. One of the cognitive issues they face is inability to focus, an essential life skill. Since yoga involves focussing, practising it can help autistic kids to concentrate better and develop eye contact, another challenge they face."

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Polishes socio-communication skills

Yoga has been proved to have a positive impact on an ASD child's imitation and cognitive skills, alongside social-communicative behaviours. While doing yoga, children learn the asanas and breathing techniques through mimicking the actions and behaviours of the trainer. That is how they learn to imitate and follow instructions. Furthermore, it can also improve their capacity to stay seated for a longer duration while boosting their non-verbal communication skills.

Enhances awareness and expression skills

Opting for yoga will not only help kids with autism to improve their facial expressions, actions and social behaviours, but it can also help them increase their emotional awareness. This will enable them to express how they are feeling in a more efficient way. Since children with autism have a problem with expressive and receptive communication, they may react in unexpected or inappropriate ways. Breathing strategies may be beneficial for them in releasing uncomfortable emotions like anger, frustration or anxiety in a constructive manner.

Develops motor skills

A child with autism is likely to experience delayed motor development. Yoga therapy can be of help here. This is so because these workouts tone muscles while increasing balance and stability. Once children develop motor skills they have a greater sense of their physical self in terms of space which enhances their gait and stability.

Helps them de-stress

Yoga can help kids relax. Breathing strategies involved in this age-old technique can help children with autism deal with irritability, regulate heart rates and allow them to release unregulated emotions.

Reduces challenging behaviours

Children with ASD face problems with language and speech development, communication, expression of emotions, attention and sensory integration. All these combine together to trigger challenging behaviours in them. According to a study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, there was an improvement of behaviours recorded in children with autism who opted for yoga. Breathing strategies and yoga poses can help them to not only lower their anxiety levels but can also be effective in developing their self-regulation and coping skills. All these affect their mood and behaviour positively.

Improves body awareness

Kids suffering from autism tend to have limited body awareness. By identifying body parts with the help of yoga and body movements, they will be able to become aware of their own body.

Activates vagus nerve

A growing body of research is currently hypothesising that children with autism spectrum disorder have a low functioning vagus nerve. It is the longest cranial nerve that regulates speech, hearing and digestion among other functions. Our ability to perceive others' expressions is also controlled by this nerve. The connection between vagus nerve and autism is drawn because of the fact that it is a neurodevelopmental disorder. So, activation of vagus nerve may improve its function and benefit individuals with ASD, says research. Several studies observe that breathing exercises, stretching workouts and meditation can activate this nerve which can enhance social skills, induce calmness and reduce anxiety.

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