As any parent or teacher will tell you, nurturing children in a mindful way and giving them the structure they need to thrive is a big job. When it comes to children on the autism spectrum, the scope and intensity of caregiving doubles or triples since these children often require more from their parents and caregivers than most children do.
For over thirty years I have been working with parents and teachers using yoga, meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness to help counterbalance the all-consuming nature of caring for autistic children, and the relentless therapy schedule that often accompanies them.
I run a children's yoga training program called Radiant Child Yoga that helps people to remember how to learn yoga in playful ways, to be present to themselves through meditative processes, and to feel more connected to their heart rather than be in their heads (as we often tend to do). The program is a simple and playful way to get into the "yoga state of mind," and from there, share yoga tools with children of all ages and abilities.
Here are a few simple yoga practices to work (and play!) with. Don't be concerned about doing them all. Instead, follow your intuition by choosing those that light up for you. For extra fun and connection, share them with your children!
Sa…first finger and thumbThis is for releasing old thoughts and feelings that do not serve you to be your authentic self. The mantra can be translated to mean, "I am connecting to my core, authentic self."
Ta…middle finger and thumb
Na…ring finger and thumb
Ma…little finger and thumb.
I am of the philosophy that yoga is something you ARE, not something you do. And so, we use the tools and techniques to bring us into a more elevated state of consciousness in which we can more easily connect with the inner self as well as the child. I'd like to share with you a few stories from students of mine who have successfully used yoga tools to bring them into the "yoga state of being" in their own lives, and into the lives of children with autism.
Sharon, a mother of child on the autism spectrum, sent me this response a few months after taking the Radiant Child Yoga training: "Holding the positive space for the person in crisis has become a central pillar in working with my child and learning to forgive myself. It has made me more patient and forgiving of others, which were specific goals for myself that always seemed just out of my reach before. I had been so focused on helping my son that I had lost sight of the most important thing I could do … self-care. Before learning these tools I didn't realize how plagued I have been by my own sensory issues and how much anxiety they create. I am using many of the sensory management techniques on myself daily, like slowing down the breath, taking a moment to close my eyes and focus inwardly on my feelings and letting them wave through me. I am also keenly aware of my son's sensory needs in the moment and we now have countless tools to aid us. We do many of the yoga and meditation tools together!"
As Sharon so aptly put it, often the focus is so strongly on the child with autism that self-care goes out the window. It is a huge victory when parents act on the realization that they must help themselves to be of help to their child. The same goes for teachers and therapists who who work with autistic children. One of my students, Serena, took the yoga state of mind to heart. In her words:
"I have been a school-based occupational therapist for over ten years. I have always loved being an OT. However, last year when I learned Shakta's children's yoga training, I was having a very difficult time adjusting to an unusual amount of workplace changes. I felt myself rapidly transforming from the person who looked forward to going to work to the person who had mini anxiety attacks on Sunday night. The stressors were affecting my job performance; I felt disorganized, overwhelmed, not present, and worst of all, not effective. Miraculously, after a few months of working with yoga and mindfulness for myself, I can truly say that:
Self care practiced in a committed way, using yoga, meditation, and mindfulness tools goes a long way towards feeling our our own brand of happiness and connection our unique authenticity. Once that happens, our children cannot help but notice, and life with them—whether they are on the spectrum or not—becomes sweeter and full of positive experiences. I like to remember that one step in the direction of wholeness is all it takes to feel better, and from there it gets easier to take more steps!