Teaching Yoga to Children with Autism? A Piece of Cake!


The feeling of inclusiveness gained within the yoga session is impressive, particularly with the way in which our children with autism have adapted to it. I am convinced that Yoga can make a real difference to the lives of children and young people with autism

Stewart Harris, Head of Phoenix Special School, Bow, East London

5 Stars

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 is already in action at several Special Needs Schools around the UK. 

The Model
Over the past thirteen years I have developed a model of how to teach yoga to children with autism in school. 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 are using 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 nearly two decades. 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. 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 works?
The answer 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 are targeted like waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules.

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 from an 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 working well. Children and staff will be enjoying their yoga while I’ll be teaching hundreds of miles away. Seems like I’ll be having my cake and eating it.

Copyright Michael Chissick & Yoga at School 2012. Illustration copyright Sarah Peacock. Both entities not to be reproduced ir distributed without permission 

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