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     YOGA | LIFESTYLE YOGA GENERATES HUGE BENEFITS FOR CHILDREN WITH AUTISM Yoga is growing in popularity , as a complementary therapy for children with special needs and autism, with rising numbers of schools and parents participating in innovative yoga programs which are cropping up around the country. Scott Anderson, teacher and founder of YogAutism, mentions on his site that in addition to benefits typically associated with yoga—improved strength and flexibility, and an increasing sense of peace—autistic children also experience a reduction of pain, anxiety, aggression, obsessive behaviors, and self-stimulatory activities. And there's more good news. The children are also having greater success making new friends and regulating emotions.  Yoga is growing in popularity in the U.S. as a complementary therapy for children with special needs and autism. Louise Goldberg, author of Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs, also has first-hand experience witnessing the enormous benefits children on the autistic spectrum experience from practicing yoga. In 1981, Goldberg and a colleague were invited to teach a demo class for teachers at a residential hospital for children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. “We were both fairly new yoga teachers and we just made it up as we went along. But seeing the kids—many of whom were extremely anxious, withdrawn, or angry—let go, for even a moment, was a revelation. We were amazed at how effective yoga was with these children and how much they enjoyed it, ” says Goldberg. Anxiety and Yoga Children with autism have very different sensory experiences from other people, and these responses often cause their bodies to get stuck in fight, flight, or freeze modes that divert blood from the digestive organs to the skeletal muscles. This activity results in disrupted digestion, increased heart rate, and shallower breathing—all of which readily provoke anxiety. Practicing his floating on a cloud (shavasana), he was able to self-regulate and calm his emotions, ” explains Goldberg. “I had a student, a little boy who got very, very anxious if the school bus was late. His mother drove him to school everyday and one day she saw him lying down in the back seat of the car, and she asked him, 'Are you sick?' He responded, 'No, I am relaxing.' The mother said she had never seen him so calm. Practicing his floating on a cloud (shavasana), he was able to self-regulate and calm his emotions, ” explains Goldberg. The Importance of Visualization Autism educators often highlight the importance of visualization practices, so Goldberg designed the program Stop and Relax, which uses over 50 cue cards to help children visualize the pose they are supposed to take. Through this visualization, they are able to successfully imitate and model physical actions and postures they would not have been able to previously.  “Some of the kids don’t speak—don’t have language—but they can look at a visual cue card and respond. Some children also have trouble engaging, even if they can achieve fluid sentences and can perform motor planning. However, they don’t have the kind of motor planning skills like going from point A to point B to point C. But on seeing the visual cue, somehow it triggers something in their brain and they can replicate it, ” she explains. Resistance to the Word "Yoga" When Goldberg started teaching her specialized yoga classes for children with autism, she received some resistance from parents and schools, as some people didn’t feel comfortable with the word "yoga." “I think some people around the U.S. were a little bit narrow-minded. Some even thought it was a cult, ” she explained. "One thing that I want to impart here is that yoga, as it’s practiced in public schools, is not a religious practice. The postures and breathing exercises, the relaxation techniques and self-regulation tools, can be culled from yoga’s vast well of resources to be implemented in a public school curriculum." This program is applicable to all children and ages, as it is just another form of movement involving exercise, mindfulness, and breathing. Goldberg now uses the name "Creative Relaxation, " and takes yoga poses and applies them to challenges that children have in either their school or everyday lives. This program is applicable to all children and ages, as it is just another form of movement involving exercise, mindfulness, and breathing. “The idea is that when we are in a school, we don’t use any Sanskrit names. We don’t call it the prayer pose. We call it the tree pose. Viparita shalabhasana is our Superman pose. I don’t want anyone to feel that it is religious. We don’t do any chanting. When we sing, it’s just generic songs.” Goldberg believes that all children would benefit from yoga practice in school classes. “Ten years ago, when I was teaching in a school, I had a chance to go into all the classes which had a child with autism and I taught the whole group. It wasn’t just the one child that benefited from this. Everyone did, ” she explains with a smile.
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    How is Play Therapy Used to Treat Autism?  Don’t underestimate the power of play. Even goofing off and horsing around can have serious therapeutic benefits for kids on the autism spectrum. Add some structure and rules in a more formal game and you have a powerful tool for developing and refining everything from motor skills and coordination to communication, listening and social skills. Play is all about interacting with others in a cooperative and competitive way, communicating needs and wants, strategizing, interpreting the intentions of others, and taking turns… Kind of sounds like the perfect practice for a kid struggling to develop these skills, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the whole concept behind play therapy. And the beauty of play therapy is that it doesn’t always need to be guided by a professional therapist. With a little coaching, parents, siblings, friends and caregivers can all work to bring out the therapeutic benefits of play at home and on the playground. What is the Difference Between Directive and Non-Directive Play Therapy? Non-directive play therapy is the more unstructured type of play. This is where children are left to guide themselves with fewer boundaries and are left to work through problems on their own. Directive play therapy is just the opposite. It is a more guided approach, where a parent or therapist engages the child more often and directly and might make suggestions or try to move the session along. Floor time and other play therapy styles used with children with ASD often use both non-directive and directive approaches. Sessions often begin with little or no direction, allowing the child to pick the initial activity. As the session moves along a therapist or parent might prompt or nudge the child to choose a new toy or to make a request or communicate in some way, making the session more directive in nature. Play therapy is focused on the individual needs of the child and each session is designed to fit those needs. Approaches are adjusted from session to session and from child to child. What’s the Purpose of Floor Time Sessions? Floor time sessions – one approach to play therapy – sometimes involve the child, therapist, and parents all working – that is, playing – together. There are six key goals floor time sessions are designed to achieve: The child shows they understand the mechanics of the toy or game, i.e. they will want to roll the ball instead of putting it in their mouth The child actively engages the therapist and/or parent(s) Some kind of two-way communication is achieved The child becomes aware of their own wants and needs within the game play The child makes gestures to communicate these wants and needs, which may be as simple as pointing to a toy The child calms themselves if they get upset These goals are achieved in a number of ways throughout the session. First, the child gets to lead the play session. Parents and the therapist get on the floor and play with toys and games that the child chooses, many of which may come from the home or be things that the parents or therapist know the child already enjoys. These items may have been placed out at the beginning of the session for the child to choose from. Bubble blowing is a popular place to start. Children also love toys that move, light up, vibrate or make sounds—think Transformers or Bop It! Anything that is actively engaging and does something is always a positive. As the session continues, the therapist or parents will give the child new toys or activities, perhaps swapping out or adding toys that make the play more complex and dynamic. For example, a shape matching box might be introduced where the child would put blocks of various shapes into the corresponding holes, when before the child was only playing with the different shaped blocks. This additional level of challenge simply adds to the complexity of the skill the child was already engaging in. According to a study conducted in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, this method of play therapy has a success rate of 58% when using the six goals named above as a metric for success. Can I Do Play Therapy At Home? As a parent, you play an important role in your child’s play therapy. Not only will you be an active participant in play therapy sessions, but many parents choose to undertake play therapy on their own living room carpets! Many play therapists are willing and able to work with parents on teaching play therapy techniques that are easy to use in the home. There are also many video and book programs out there to help parents with home play therapy options. The most important things to remember when engaging your child in play therapy at home are to… Always stay engrossed in what your child is doing Make sure to comment on what they are doing, even if they don’t continue the conversation Try to mirror and imitate your child as a way to help them feel more comfortable and secure in their play Add simple, small actions. If you are playing with toy cars and your child is driving their car around, consider adding a sound effect with yours! Remember, it’s all about baby steps! Don’t try to push them too far and always meet them at their current level. Play therapy can be a wonderful opportunity to interact with your child and build on your relationship, as well as for your child to continue to develop invaluable social skills.
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