How to set up a successful yoga class for autism
I am so happy to see that yoga for kids and adults on the autistic spectrum are becoming more and more popular, with more teacher trainings from companies like Yo’tism leading the way.
Everybody can reap the benefits from yoga practice, especially if your sensory input is overloaded as individuals on autistic spectrum constantly experience.
Many of my Rainbow Yoga teacher-training students ask for more tips on setting up successful Yoga classes for kids or adults on the autistic spectrum
So here are the 9 tips I would like to share with you
Know Your Students
Familiarity is important. Ideally meet with your prospective students or a student in their own familiar environment first, perhaps just talking over tea while showing some images from your current classes, so they understand what the experience will be about.
Yoga is also an amazing activity to do for the whole family or with their caregivers, friends or spouse.
Perhaps they could even sample the class in the comfort of their own home. In his way, your students can practice a routine with somebody they know, so the new experience of the actual class would not feel that overwhelming.
If it’s not possible to meet before your class, it is great to have a little imagery of photos or videos of your classes and your photo prepared which you could send to them to look at before they join your class.
Repetition is essential for people on the autistic spectrum. Make sure to always repeat the same order in the yoga class, e.g. Always having breathing exercise before massage or relaxation, or always starting the class in a circle and asking how everyone is.
If you need somebody else to cover the class, invite a new teacher to a couple of classes beforehand for your students to acquaint themselves with the new person, and for your cover teacher to familiarise themselves with the routine being taught. Also, make sure to have a clear beginning and an end to every yoga class.
Arts & crafts time! It’s a great idea to create a visual table or individual cards to represent the order of the class. You could make photos of your students performing the elements of your class and use them in the designs. In this way, your students will know what to expect and if they like a specific part and are anxious to do it as soon as they turn up to the class, you can point out to the table and reassure them that the part they are looking forwards to is sure to come. In this way, you can also play with the contents, e.g. The breathing exercises themselves can vary from class to class, but you will always do them during the same part of the class.
I prefer just a few elements in my class, and a class plan for teens would look something like this:
- Greetings (how are you feeling today? What have you been doing today?)
- Breathing Exercise
- Yoga Poses
- Focus Exercise
- Massage in Pairs
If you’re teaching a general class for all children and you have one or more students in the autistic spectrum, ensure that they come to class with their caregiver, and that their caregiver does yoga too! They just need that extra bit of special attention which you cannot provide in your general Kids Yoga class. Also, their caregiver also knows exactly how to deal with the child’s challenging behaviour and you can focus on what you came to do — yoga!
If you are teaching a whole class for kids with additional needs or solely on the autistic spectrum, make sure you have at least one assistant for every 2-3 kids. For adults, I generally find that I can have less assistance; one for my 6-10 students. I feel it also depends on the severity of the spectrum, so you might need more or less help.
I feel it’s a self regulating practice when students feel they need a time out. It is likely that during your first kids yoga for autism sessions, caregivers will be the only people who are doing yoga, while the children are coming back and forth into the practice during the class. Similar situations will arise in the adults classes, again with students coming back and forth to the practice. This is one of the reasons why I think mixed — both general population and additional needs together — classes are great! Not only does it enable you to hold your class sequence together but it also facilitates those who are vulnerable to integrate into the community.
Create a Tangible Experience
Let’s take breathing exercises as an example. Rather than simply asking students inhale and exhale, breathing can make more sense if we make it more ‘real’. One way of doing this is by making it visual. For example, by using bubble blower or by guiding them to place their hands on their belly, as to observe their belly’s movement as they breathe.
For meditation exercises, a combination of movement and focus tremendously improves concentration, such as colouring-in mandalas, or walking and counting steps. For relaxation, I like to use massage, rather then just lying down or guided imagery. Also, using stress balls, heavy blankets and eye pillows help them to stay longer in relaxation.
Make it Fun!
Make your yoga class informal and fun, as in this kind of relaxed environment, information tends to sink more effortlessly. Don’t focus on a problem, always focus on the solution. For example if a person wanders off for a little while, focus on the class and praise their conscious re-joining. They will come back to your class routine when they are ready. Also, as they wander, it is important to show that you are not just ignoring them, so let them know that it is OK to take time off and that they can come back at any time.
Don’t focus on correcting yoga poses or physically position your student in a yoga position that you think needs to look a particular way. Accept the approximations with love and give positive verbal cues instead. Avoid saying ‘you are doing this wrong’ or ‘not this way’ as these special students have already heard more than enough that they are somewhat wrong and different. You will get a much better response if you will invite them to ‘try this way’. This way, you will encourage their curiosity. For older kids and adults, if after several classes you see adjustment is necessary, make your adjustments in a very gentle, compassionate, fun and loving way.
Allow Space for Creativity
Allow space for creativity, for your students and for yourself… Allow some time to include dance and spontaneous body movement, as this is known to encourage creativity and improve self-worth and self-compassion.
Be brave with incorporating massage into your classes. My favourites are: Thai Yoga Massage and Foot Massage. I’ve heard so many times that people on the autistic spectrum don’t like to be touched, however I have never encountered the dislike of Partner Yoga, Interactive Games, and Thai Massage. On the contrary: these are the students who will ask for massage! They do find firm and loving touch to be calming.
Also, play with incorporating singing, and storytelling, and include lots of alternative calming techniques in a playful manner. Anything that you find engaging and fun, your students will enjoy as well! I also find that students just love sensory body socks! I believe the added pressure on their body helps them to enjoy yoga poses more. You can get them in variety of colours and sizes.
Make it Interactive
For both, children and adults, include some ‘social yoga’, such as Partner Yoga and ice-breaker games to add a social dimension to the practice. It supports the development of motor skills, awareness of ‘my body in relation to yours’ while improving communication skills, as well as teaches students to work together, increasing self-awareness and self-control.
Perhaps you have some techniques that help you too? Pleases share them in the comments below. We grow together by sharing and in this way we can create more spaces to help each other to celebrate our body, mind and spirits, the uniqueness that we are.