Yoga can be beneficial to people on the Autism Spectrum in a number of ways, including helping us to be more aware of and in tune with our bodies and sense of self.
For nearly 30 years, I have specialised in autism, working directly with autistic people as a clinical psychologist. People say to me it must be really difficult and challenging working with autistic people as they tend to think ‘autistic people don’t get “better”. It is misconceptions such as this that I find disheartening, as autistics are not broken or defective.
An autistic person has a different neurology than a person who isn’t autistic. And being different can be difficult, especially in a world where most people don’t understand autism and where the environment is not accommodating of difference.
In my work I have found autistic people, like all humans, have both strengths and areas of challenge. And I don’t want to minimise the challenges autistic people face. I have met many autistic people who are lonely, unemployed or under employed, experiencing addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or just feel they do not make a good fit with the World. As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of people struggling and my role is to help navigate and alleviate the challenges, the pain, or the loneliness they may be experiencing; not to ‘fix’ the person or ‘fix’ their autism.
The Benefits of Yoga for People on the Autism Spectrum
One of the reasons I started to embrace yoga about nine years ago in my approach to autism is because the philosophy of yoga embraces the person as they are, that is, completely perfect as they are. This is not to say that certain thoughts, emotions, and sensory perception do not cause problems. The idea is that the person, or the true Self, is not defined by these experiences, instead each experience is best seen as a messenger that something is wrong.
I was also attracted to yoga for autism because I was peripherally aware of the benefits of meditating, being in the present moment, and being more aware of the body, i.e. living less in the head. I thought yoga would be a good way to assist autistic people to meditate, because it can be hard for many on the spectrum to sit still, and I thought it would also be a good way to help my clients get more into the experience of being in the present moment and their bodies.
When suffering comes up, the philosophy of yoga teaches; notice the experience and move in closer to observe what is happening with love and compassion. When suffering or discomfort happen, these are natural parts of human experience that come and go like clouds come and go across the sky.
When strong emotions like anxiety, depression, anger, or intense sensory experiences come along, the practice of yoga says lovingly “stay.’’ Observe what is happening and label the experience. The experience does not define you, but it is important and has a message.
Notice the thought, the emotion or sensation and also notice what is happening in your body.
Notice if there is any way that you can bring a sense of ease into your experience.
Is there a different way of holding your body right now that would provide you with more support?
Is there something that your body needs?
Would breathing a different way right now support you?
Is there any other way you could be supported right now?
Could you ask someone else to help?
In yogic philosophy the true Self is bigger than everything else in the person’s experience, including their sense of self identity. True Self is like the whiteboard, and everything else that comes into awareness, like thoughts, feelings, body sensations, sensory experiences, sense of self, is like writing on that whiteboard in water-soluble, rather than permanent, markers. The writing doesn’t define the whiteboard, the writing is just writing.
Another analogy is that the self is like the sky, and everything else is the weather moving across the sky. I quite like this analogy because in the sky is the Sun, and our true Self can also be likened to the Sun. Our true Self, or true nature, has the qualities of light, life, and warmth.
What is the true Self then?
Yoga says that the true Self is the Observer, Pure Awareness and Love.
Another teaching from yoga is nondualism. This is the idea that we are none of us separate, we are all one. We are all different manifestations of energy arising in awareness. When we make friends with these manifestations in ourselves, it naturally flows that we have more empathy, understanding and love for others.
So, what has all this got to do with Autism?
I have found that approaching a person from the philosophy of yoga allows the space for that person to find their true Self, and therefore to find self-acceptance, self-love, and a sense of well-being. Yoga also helps family members, assisting them to make space for autism, and for all their reactions to autism, including confusion, guilt, self-blame, fear, anger. Utilising the strategy of lovingly and with great compassion for self, making space for their own reactions, becoming curious and moving closer to them, allows them to reach a place of self-acceptance, self-love, and a sense of well-being. These are perfect conditions for an autistic person, indeed for any human, to thrive.
A lot of people in Western society believe yoga is about complicated poses that are practised in a gym to become calmer and more beautiful. For some people, this is certainly what it is about.
However, by looking more closely with openness and curiosity, I have found that yoga is about so much more than that. When I started on my journey in yoga, as a person who identifies with episodic depression and persistent social anxiety, I was very interested in the calming effect yoga may bring to my life, as well as the potential beauty effects! I have found that this calming effect was achieved within the first month of deepening my practice, and that since then yoga has been the foundation of building the most meaningful relationships of my life, including my relationship with myself, and with the clients and families I am here to help.
Being a scientist practitioner, I turned to the research literature on yoga early on in my journey and was amazed to discover there have been at least four decades of research on the physical and mental effects of yoga on humans. I was curious to see if there had been any research on yoga and autism. My jaw dropped when I read a meta -analysis of 123 studies published in 2014 that looked at the effect of meditation, a form of yoga, on brain morphology. Eight brain areas, all of which are known to work differently in autism, were consistently altered in meditators. These include the Brodmann Area 10 (prefrontal cortex), sensory cortices, insula, hippocampus, anterior and mid cingulate gyrus, orbitofrontal cortex, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and corpus callosum.
A review of the literature for meditation as a potential therapy to support autistic people conducted in 2012 indicated that meditation not only brought relief of many of the challenges autistic people face, including social confusion and high levels of anxiety, but also improved the quality of their family and social life.
There are a number of books published to assist autistic people to access yoga. I have included a list of some of my favourites below.
If you are on the spectrum, or if you live with, love, or work with someone who is autistic, I strongly encourage you to embrace a yogic philosophy in your approach to them and yourselves and watch the incredible shifts that happen when you do, both in your own life and in theirs.
Fox, Nijeboer, Dixon, Floman, Ellamil, Rumak, Sedlmeier & Christoff, (2014). Meta analysis of 123 studiesNeuroscience & Biobehavioural Review, (Apr), 20140409.
Sequeira, S. & Mahiuddin A. (2012). Meditation as a Potential Therapy for Autism: A Review, Autism Research and Treatment, Article ID 835847, 11 pages doi:10.1155/2012/835847
Manocha, R (2016). Silence Your Mind Hachette: Australia.
Simpkins, C.A. & Simpkins A.M. (2014). Yoga and Mindfulness Therapy: Workbook for Clinicians and Clients. PESI Publishing & Media; USA.
Thornton Hardy, S. (2015). Asanas for Autism and Special Needs: Yoga to Help Children with Their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: UK.
About the writer, Dr Michelle Garnett
Dr Michelle Garnett PhD is a clinical psychologist who has specialised in autism for 28 years. In 2005 she founded Minds & Hearts, a now internationally recognised Clinic specialised to autism. Her research has informed understanding of early detection, the female profile and the importance of good mental health. She has co-authored six highly regarded books on autism, including a seminal work with Barb Cook on the female presentation, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism.