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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

“Stretching” the World for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Jul 28, 2014 06:28PM ● By Vitalah Simon

With the current surge of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, the combination of yoga and dance/movement therapy has emerged as a powerful natural strategy for addressing the many challenges these children face. Together, the techniques nurture and strengthen the children by building new motor, behavior and communication skills and by promoting harmony between them and their parents or caregivers.

Through yoga/dance/movement therapy, children become more grounded in space and time, improving their sense of body image and boundaries and learning to distinguish themselves from others. They make more eye contact, improve their impulse control, lengthen their attention span, learn self-calming skills, and expand their capacity for verbal and nonverbal expression. The techniques help them develop strength, flexibility and balance and better relate to others. Plus, the children have fun!

Very often, the underlying difficulties and limitations of children with autism spectrum disorders are made clear in their behavior and bodily expressions. Yoga, movement and creative play directly engage with their behavior and promote connection and nonverbal communication. The techniques, which complement Applied Behavioral Analysis, give the children the repeatable skills they need to focus and self-soothe while also building their physical strength.

The tools of yoga are very helpful to autistic children. They often include warming up the body (sometimes with music and song); moving like animals; making animal sounds; making up their own poses; learning traditional poses; performing activities that cross the midline for brain integration; practicing movement and stillness for impulse control; using the breath; and taking time to rest and relax into being still.

Group classes focus primarily on creative yoga and building social skills, while individual sessions address more deeply the child’s specific needs.

A dance/movement therapist (licensed by New York State as a creative arts therapist, or LCAT), is trained at the master’s level in movement observation, evaluation and nonverbal interventions. Some dance/movement LCATs are specifically trained to work with children with autistic spectrum disorders. They attune to the child’s world, matching the quality and tone of his or her movements and treating nonverbal behaviors as communications in and of themselves. They also set appropriate, firm limits on behaviors that are destructive to the self or others. Gradually, by staying empathetic and attuned to the child’s needs, they establish a relationship with the child. Then, using their knowledge of movement and development, they gradually “stretch” the child’s world—drawing him or her into personal interaction and expanding the range, rhythm and style of his or her movement and speech.

 Many yoga/dance/movement therapists work with the family as a system, so parental involvement is strongly suggested for maximum benefit to the child.

The “dance” of mutual cueing and attachment begins in the first year of life. If a child starts life with a biological deficit or biochemical instability, the task of connecting is significantly harder. Yoga/dance/movement therapy helps turn this challenge around by increasing matched cueing, supporting positive attachment and improving development.

Vitalah Simon is the main instructor at YogaShine, located at 7-11 Legion Dr., Valhalla, NY.  She is a registered yoga teacher at the 500-hour professional level, is a licensed creative arts therapist in dance/movement psychotherapy with a specialty in early childhood concerns, and has an MEd in counseling and dance/movement therapy. For more info, visit YogaShine.com or contact Simon at 914.769.8745 or [email protected]