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Teaching Yoga to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders? A Piece of Cake!

By Michael Chissick, primary school teacher and qualified yoga instructor, and specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and author of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech.


Exciting New Training Project

An exciting new initiative which delivers the benefits of yoga to hundreds of children with autism will be the cherry on the cake. The project will be in action at a Special Needs Academy in Lincolnshire, UK, after Easter with more to follow.

Over the past thirteen years I have developed a model of how to teach yoga to children with autism. The model can be used by class teachers and teaching assistants with no previous experience of yoga. The structures, activities and postures are easy to learn and are safe to teach. The model is suitable for children across all key stages.

Special schools that have a high proportion of children on the autistic spectrum will use the model. The advantages are that teaching and training are geared to the specific needs of their pupils, and staff can be trained economically without time away from school; and the icing on the cake is that staff can use the model immediately.

How did we reach this point?

I have been teaching Yoga to KS1, 2 & 3 pupils as part of the integrated day at Special Needs School for thirteen years. Many of the children I teach have autism and sensory processing disorders. During each thirty minute session I work with the whole class, class teacher and teaching assistants. Time restraints make it impossible for me to teach all classes in my schools, so I tend to alternate classes every half term.

I had noticed that when I returned to a class to continue after a 5/6 week break there was a need to start over again, which can be frustrating. For many years I simply regarded it as part of the job of teaching pupils with ASD.

However over the last couple of years I have noticed that some classes had retained what I had taught them and were as enthusiastic as ever for their yoga. So what distinguishes the ‘ready-for-more-class’ from the ‘let’s-start-again-class? The answer is that the class teachers and teaching assistants have been teaching their pupils yoga without me… and doing a brilliant job at it too!

Why does it work?

The answer also lies in the fundamentals of my highly structured approach. For example, the children are seated on chairs in a circle. I use a visual timetable and posture cards to keep my verbal input to the minimum. Within the structure I target several layers or elements simultaneously; it’s like a multi-tiered cake. These layers are easily recognised by colleagues who are already experts at working with children with ASD and are using similar models in other curriculum areas.

 

The Layers

  1. Engagement tactics are, for example, encouraging children to choose from posture cards hanging from an umbrella; or children throwing tiny bean bags into the holes on a colourful board as a means of choosing a posture.
     
  2. Fun is key! Children eagerly get out of their chairs and into the posture because it’s fun; if it continues to be fun then they will want to stay in the posture.
     
  3. Repetition of postures over the weeks is a crucial; as children become more at ease with the posture leading to improved skills and greater confidence.
     
  4. Every child Achieves in the lesson.
     
  5. Social Skills like waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules are targeted.
     
  6. Fitness Flexibility and improved co-ordination are the layers that tend to hit the news.
     
  7. Sensory is the sweetest layer. The vestibular system ‘tells us if we are moving or still, while our proprioceptive system is the unconscious awareness of our body position’ (Yack et al 2002). A combination of both systems gives us vital information about movement and where we are in relation to, for example, the floor. I teach many children whose vestibular and proprioceptive systems are dysfunctional. Using yoga postures I help to regulate those dysfunctions.

Feedback

Feedback from the Academy in Lincolnshire was wonderfully positive describing the day as excellent and staff commented that the model:

‘…does away with many pre-conceptions and prejudices – it helps make different types of movement accessible to all.’

It is early days in Lincolnshire, but soon the children and staff will be enjoying their yoga while I’ll be teaching 175 miles away. Seems like I’ll be having my cake and eating it.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.


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