This week I would love to bring your attention to the use of yoga and mind-body therapies in supporting the wellbeing of Autistic children.
There are numerous, well-designed studies (that include control groups and neuroimaging) looking at the therapeutic value of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga in neurotypical adult populations.
Their findings into how the above impact on the various brain structures─are impressive!
A few of the brain areas impacted by the various types of meditation, including yoga, are hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and brainstem.
Hippocampus is associated with “consolidating of information from short-term memory to long-term memory,” as well as initial learning1. Hippocampus has a role in “learning from stressful situations” and “shutting down the stress response afterwards”2.
Whereas the cortisol that is released in response to stress can attack cells of the hippocampus, meditation, including yoga, increase the size of the hippocampus, as well as its connectivity.
Prefrontal cortex is important for staying on track and making decisions that align with one’s values and goals. Many associate the prefrontal cortex with its role in executive functions, including planning, organization, self-control, discernment of what is good and “bad” based on what one values, and self-control.3
Again, meditation practices, including yoga, have been shown to increase the connectivity and grey and white matter in the prefrontal cortex.
Lastly, brain stem is an ancient part of the brain, involved in basic regulation of the autonomic nervous system.
Meditation, including yoga has been shown to affect the activity of the brainstem; it seems that the practicing a calming response strengthens our ability to draw on this skill in calming our fight/flight reactivity, making us better able to self-regulate.4
Despite the overwhelming research support for the effectiveness of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga in stress reduction for neurotypical populations, research support for the effectiveness of these for Autistic populations is still in its early days.
Autism and Mind-Body Therapies
There are research studies that suggest that mind-body practices have positive impact on Autistic individuals; however, according to research reviewers, their small and varied sample sizes as well as limited control groups make them difficult to compare and draw definite conclusions from. 5
However, every study has reported benefits for the use of yoga and mind-body therapies with Autistic children, the most reported benefits being: improvements in imitative behaviors, tolerance of sitting, and self-control.
For example, in a 2010 study by Radhakrishna, International Journal of Yoga, author found that autistic children who participated in regular yoga practice over a 10 month period increased their imitative skills (which author notes are essential in acquiring more complex behaviors and socializing), social-communicative skills and eye contact, sitting tolerance, and receptivity to verbal commands.6
My personal verdict
I understand that parents of Autistic children want to access the most effective therapies they can, amongst the wide choice of options, due to their limited time and financial resources, as well as their loved ones often needing much support across many areas of their lives.
Personally, while yoga and meditation are not at the forefront of our therapy efforts and where we allocate the majority of our therapy resources, I deeply appreciate their value and potential in strengthening my children’s imitative behaviors and coping skills. Hence, I incorporate various mind-body informal therapies into our daily life, such as watching kids yoga videos before school, or making use of meditations to calm or boost self-esteem.
On a personal note, I appreciate that every child is unique and has unique strengths and interests. My children's journey with supporting their mind-body connection includes participating in ballet classes (from which we initially nearly got expelled due to initially finding it difficult to copy the instructor) and making use of guided meditations (which also took us a while to get used to).
Lately, we have incorporated kids yoga videos into our morning routine. As research suggests, the more we practice a skill, the more accessible it becomes for our brain as a resource to draw on…
So, while I would not quit either speech or occupational therapies in pursuit of yoga, I do find it a potentially valuable resource that I personally feel made a difference to my children in learning to imitate.
Don’t hesitate to let me know your thoughts on this,
1. Wikipedia contributors. (2022, June 22). Hippocampus. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:14, July 3, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hippocampus&oldid=1094355973
2. www.NICABM.com (Applying Mindfulness to Your Clinical Work Module)
3. Wikipedia contributors. (2022, June 30). Prefrontal cortex. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:16, July 3, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prefrontal_cortex&oldid=1095725740
4. www.NICABM.com (Applying Mindfulness to Your Clinical Work Module)
5. Semple RJ. Review: Yoga and mindfulness for youth with autism spectrum disorder: review of the current evidence. Child Adolesc Ment Health. 2019 Feb;24(1):12-18. doi: 10.1111/camh.12295. Epub 2018 Aug 13. PMID: 32677240.
6. Rosenblatt LE, Gorantla S, Torres JA, Yarmush RS, Rao S, Park ER, Denninger JW, Benson H, Fricchione GL, Bernstein B, Levine JB. Relaxation response-based yoga improves functioning in young children with autism: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Nov;17(11):1029-35. doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0834. Epub 2011 Oct 12. PMID: 21992466; PMCID: PMC3221508.
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