Every day, for the past four years, Suchitra Waghmare has been teaching yoga to autistic children at a special needs early intervention center in Pune, Maharashtra. Awareness about autism, she says, has grown in recent times. Parents of special needs children are now more accommodating to their needs. This could be because they spend almost the entire day with their children, watching them build their own little world. Many autistic children attend regular schools. Many parents, according to Suchitra, introduce their children to dance, music, art, swimming and other co-curricular activities. Parents are eager to try anything that may help their child to live a ‘normal’ life.
Being a yoga therapist, Suchitra’s work involves teaching techniques to people having various special needs. Autism treatment with yoga is a relatively new concept and Suchitra tries to tailor her lesson plans to every student’s specific needs, preferences and abilities. Activities often include the following:
- Asanas (exercises) – These types of activities allow autistic children to move their bodies and develop fine motor skills. The asanas also help in body awareness and coordination.
- Sounds (mantras, singing bowls, bells, etc.) and songs to stimulate the brain.
- Breathing techniques to engage the nasal passage for oxidizing the brain.
Suchitra has witnessed positive transformation in children ever since she started treating autism with yoga. A parent once told Suchitra that her son started making verbal sounds, starting with Om. She also said that her son had been demonstrating more composure than before and had developed a faster response time to external stimuli. Other guardians too informed of similar results in their children.
Other parents spoke about balance. A child, who used to lose balance whenever he tried to stand, was now able to stand still for a good amount of time. This is a clear indication of muscle development facilitated by yoga.
The challenges with a yoga-based autism treatment regime include the following:
- Lack of adequate research – None has yet done any systematic study on special needs, autism and yoga. Suchitra is doing just that.
- Every child’s requirement is different and every one of them responds differently. While one may like storytelling, another may prefer music. A holistic approach may not work for all individuals suffering from autism.
- Yoga is not integrated in therapeutic intervention for autism. It is therefore not studied scientifically by most special education interns.