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Key Tips & Skills For Teaching Yoga To Children With Autism

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When teaching yoga to kids with autism, you need to make every session accessible and reflect the needs of the children participating.

To help you understand what teaching autistic children involves, we will explore this topic across three areas: 

Before we explore this subject further, if you’re not already qualified, OriGym’s Level 3 Yoga Teacher qualification equips you to work with a wide range of students. Explore the range of courses we provide by downloading our course prospectus.

What You Need to Know Before Teaching Yoga to Kids With Autism

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Before you begin instructing yoga to kids with autism, it’s important to understand the definition of this disability, and particularly how it can factor into how you plan a yoga class.

The National Autistic Society defines the condition as:

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.

As a result, the condition usually manifests during a person’s childhood before the age of 3 and can influence:

  • Social skills
  • Communication
  • Relationships
  • Understanding social situations and behavioural expectations

The National Autistic Society further explains that around 1 in every hundred people in the UK are diagnosed with the condition, which is approximately 700,000 people. 

People who live with autism operate on a spectrum, meaning that each person’s condition manifests differently. Here’s a simplified way to look at the different levels of autism:

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There are 3 levels to the autism spectrum (high-functioning autism, autism and severe autism) but a few of the more common symptoms that autistic people share include:

  • A pattern of repetitive and restrictive behaviour
  • Challenges in social communication & interaction
  • Hobbies or interests that are highly focused
  • Light, sound, taste, or touch sensitivity
  • Highly-induced anxiety
  • Meltdowns and shutdowns

It’s important to understand that every autistic child is different and with that, their symptoms manifest differently too. Children could exhibit all these traits, whilst others, only a select few.

With all of this in mind, let’s explore how you can adapt your class plans to better accommodate those with the condition. 

 

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7 Tips For Teaching Yoga To Kids With Autism

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Successfully teaching yoga to kids with autism, requires you to have tips to understand the condition and how to interact with your class.

#1 - Identify A Child’s Autism Symptoms Before You Begin Teaching Them

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Above all else, when you teach yoga to kids with autism, you need to remember that each child’s condition is different.

It’s advisable to familiarise yourself with the common symptoms we’ve listed above, so you can identify when children in your class are displaying them. 

Once you’ve identified these symptoms, it’s important to create an environment that helps manage them. This can be done by reducing their exposure to stimuli, such as:

  • Flickering lights
  • Loud noises
  • Multiple voices at once

These symptoms can also be managed by:

  • Making classes as visual as possible
  • Providing structure (such as offering countdowns when a class is going to end)
  • Using clearly defined yoga class opening and closing sequences

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Considerations like these will help children feel less distressed and more attentive to the yoga session they’re participating in.

Dedicating extra time to create an autistic-friendly environment will have positive results for the children you teach.

#2 - Adapt Your Yoga Instructing When Teaching Kids With Autism

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Whilst you’re instructing yoga to kids with autism, preparation is crucial. It will allow you to adapt when your session doesn’t go as planned.

You may find that children don’t follow instructions as a result of their condition, coupled with the age group you teach.

To counter this, you should find interesting and fun ways to keep your children’s attention, so you can run a successful class.

You can ask them to name different yoga poses based on different letters of the alphabet. You could even utilise a drawing board, if one is available, to visually assist the children.

What to know when teaching yoga to kids with autism

It’s also important to plan your children's yoga class and have flexibility when defining what a successful session is.

If children don’t successfully complete yoga poses, for example, but make a solid effort to complete them, you should feel confident in calling this participation a success.

You can also adjust the session, should a child become disruptive through their boredom or stress.

Consider providing the child with an alternative activity to minimise their disruption, such as providing them with a book to look over.

To get the class back on track, you can reprioritise the structure of your session by focusing on poses you think the children in your class will benefit from, or that they’ll get enjoyment from.

#3 - Make Your Yoga Classes Predictable And Consistent For Autistic Students

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When you’re discovering how to teach yoga to kids with autism, you’ll not only have to adapt to a changing environment but also make the class as predictable as possible.

It will help children familiarise themselves with the yoga exercises being performed and reduce their anxiety.

This method will help you anticipate what to expect from your class and also help the children retain what they’re being taught. 

There are several ways you can create routines within your yoga classes, let’s explore them further:

  • Managing Expectations - You can begin by opening a yoga class effectively; outlining what the class involves at the beginning helps promote a safe environment for your yoga class. It will also be beneficial to tell the children in advance when a yoga pose will be finished and what they’re transitioning to next.
  • Timetable - Running the classes on the same day and time of the week, especially if you’ll be working with your group of children for the next several weeks or months.
  • Sequence - Use a yoga sequence builder to create a structure for the yoga poses you wish to perform. This will improve your class’ responsiveness. It will also regulate their behaviour, making them less likely to experience a meltdown. One way you sequence your class is by working from head to toe with yoga poses so the children understand the direction of the yoga poses.
  • Use The Same Space - By running the yoga class in the same room, you create an environment that the children will quickly become familiar with. If you have to change the location of your class, it’s best to inform the children and their parents ahead of schedule to reduce their levels of anxiety when working in a new environment.

If you consider these factors, your class will encounter fewer interruptions as the predictability will be a source of comfort for children in your class.

#4 - Make Repetitive Behaviours Part of Your Yoga Classes With Autistic Children

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If you’re looking for tips for teaching yoga to kids with autism, then it’s important to recognise the repetitive behaviours they engage in when they’re feeling anxious.

These could include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Hand flapping
  • Rocking backwards and forwards
  • Wiggling fingers
  • Jumping

These repetitive behaviours can also manifest when children find enjoyment in these behaviours, which makes it important to understand the difference between these emotional states.

One way you could understand the difference is by understanding the environment your class operates.

If your class feels unpredictable to any of the children, they’re likely to engage in these repetitive behaviours to ease their feelings of discomfort.

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One way you can incorporate these behaviours, should they appear, is by making them part of your yoga class. 

You could include any jumping you witness as part of a warm-up or as a transitional exercise between yoga poses. This will help focus the children’s attention, and mean they enjoy their yoga class with you. 

It’s important not to engage in communication that is critical of any children that aren’t responsive. Guide them back to the practice, and offer them an alternative if they’re not responding positively. 

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#5 - Provide Specific Feedback and Praise To Your Autistic Students

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When teaching yoga to kids with autism, it’s important to elaborate on the positive feedback you provide them. This is because autistic people may not understand why you’re praising them.

You can achieve this, for example, by providing positive feedback when you believe the children excelled in performing a yoga pose correctly. 

You can even perform the yoga pose again to provide a visual queue to help illustrate what you’re providing positive feedback for, such as:

You did a great job performing the Happy Bee Pose today!

or

You looked like you were having fun doing the Eagle Pose! Well done!

If you combine positive feedback with a physical demonstration of the yoga pose you're referring to, the children will understand how successful they were. 

This will ensure they leave with a positive mindset and will associate those feelings with your yoga class, which paves the way for future sessions.

#6 - Focus On Fun, Not Just Yoga When Teaching Your Autistic Children

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When instructing yoga kids with autism, it’s important to remember that your class will concentrate on creating a fun environment rather than achieving fitness goals. 

The reason for this is simple. People with autism find it difficult to work towards goals as they’re unable to sustain problem-solving skills.  

Since fitness remains an important part of your yoga class with autistic children, you should try your best to achieve some fitness goals, depending on the class you have. These may include: 

  • Improving balance and posture
  • Teaching breathing techniques
  • Reducing anxiety levels

Since children need to associate your yoga class with the word fun, it helps create a positive association with the work you’re doing. This will make the children more attentive and less likely to engage in negative behaviour.

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To make a class entertaining, you can include exercises that your students will enjoy, for example: 

  • The Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) - A useful exercise that mimics a child being in the womb but can also help relax children if they’re having a meltdown or shutdown during your class.
  • The Butterfly Pose (Baddha Konasana) - This exercise can serve as a bonding exercise between children in the class but also serve as an exercise that can incorporate any stimming as children can flap their knees up and down during the exercise.

Alongside having fun exercises in your plan, you can also frame the exercise through a fun yoga teaching style, including: 

  • Storytelling - Tell fairy tales to keep children’s attention whilst demonstrating poses. You can get children to perform the bee pose whilst describing bees in your story.
  • Get Creative - Allow kids to rename some of the exercises you’re showing them and potentially allow them to create poses of their own.

Whilst it’s great to make your yoga class as fun as possible, it’s also important to make sure the class is balanced and retains that core practice.

 

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#7 - Set Your Autistic Students Up For Success During The Class

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If you’re looking for tips for teaching yoga to kids with autism, one beneficial way is planning a yoga class that allows them to succeed. 

This can be guaranteed by allowing the children who participate in your yoga class to succeed by getting them to perform simple poses (such as the cobra pose) as opposed to complex poses.

This prevents the children from becoming distracted when they’re not completing a yoga pose correctly, resulting in them eventually losing interest in the yoga session. 

Should you feel as though the session didn’t achieve the objectives you envisioned, it’s always beneficial to end the session by telling each child how well they’ve done, allowing them to leave on a positive note.

5 Skills You’ll Need to Teach Yoga to Kids With Autism

To carry out a successful yoga class with autistic children, you’ll need to embody the following skills we’ve listed below.

#1 - Be Patient With Your Autistic Students

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Following your time practising yoga, one of the yoga teacher skills you’ll have undoubtedly picked up is patience. This skill is crucial for the children in your class who are diagnosed with autism.

Their condition will likely mean that your classes are prone to disruption, preventing you from achieving any yoga class intentions you had planned.

Over several weeks, the children in your class may lose focus, leading to your patience being tested. Should this happen, there are a few things you can do to stay calm and in control: 

  • Focus on the positive aspects of the class - When classes become difficult, focusing on the positive things that have happened, will provide your mood with a mental boost. For example, this could be children correctly carrying out a yoga pose, or successfully navigating a cool-down section of your class.
  • Make difficult circumstances more manageable - By prioritising an autistic child having a meltdown in your class, compared to a child performing a yoga pose incorrectly, you’re preventing yourself from becoming overwhelmed by addressing the most pressing matter first.
  • Be compassionate to your class’ needs - If children in your class are being disruptive, you can demonstrate your compassion by asking them why they’re behaving this way. This can help you understand their needs and provide the correct response. You can also illustrate how emphatic you are by keeping a steady yoga teacher's voice and speaking in a considered manner.

Implementing some of these ideas will increase the likelihood of children enjoying your class, making it a fun and relaxing environment for everyone.

#2 - Adapt Your Communication for Kids With Autism Whilst Teaching Them

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When you’re teaching yoga to kids with autism, you’ll recognise that the condition differs between individuals, requiring you to incorporate different ways of communicating to assist them.

You may find children don’t respond to instructions and if they do, they may find it difficult to interpret what you’ve asked of them.

As a result, you will need to discover new methods to help your children understand what you’re communicating with them.

There are innovative ways for you to communicate with your class, using non-verbal instructions such as: 

  • Interoception Yoga Cards - This is one of the most effective yoga cues for illustrating yoga poses are performed, and understanding how the poses make them feel.
  • Use coloured cards - To indicate when children are doing a pose correctly and when to stop performing a yoga pose.
  • Use emotional flashcards - To allow children to communicate how they feel, which is particularly important for any non-verbal students.

You might feel tempted to rely on visual cues to communicate non-verbally with your children. However, you will find the best results come from you using your emotional intelligence to combine conversations with some of these forms of non-verbal communication.

 

#3 - Be Attentive When Instructing Kids With Autism During Your Class

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Successfully instructing yoga to kids with autism requires you to be attentive. When you’re working with autistic kids, you might find that they display signs of sensory overload, especially in a busy or fast-moving environment.

Sensory overload can manifest in different ways, usually through non-verbal cues and body language, such as:

  • An increase in movement - This includes jumping, agitated twitching, and an inability to stay still.
  • Covering their ears and eyes - Autistic people often do this to block out any unwanted sounds or sights, especially if they’re experiencing sensory overload.
  • Change in speech - They will more than likely talk louder and more rapidly when overstimulated

Recognising these symptoms can help you prevent a child’s behaviour from becoming unmanageable. This can be done by implementing a few simple tactics, including 

  • Diversion - Let a child draw with some crayons if they’re not enjoying the class, and allow them to return to the class when they feel ready.
  • Distraction - Switch poses to keep children interested, and use creative transitions to encourage participation
  • Remove stimuli that overload sensors - This could include temporary lighting, scented candles, or loud music.
  • Be patient - If you lose your patience by raising your voice you’ll contribute to overloading the child’s symptoms.

You’ll find that, by recognising symptoms early and implementing these tactics, you’ll be able to mitigate the risk of stimuli and triggers happening in the future.

#4 - Demonstrate Sensitivity Towards Your Autistic Students

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One of the key traits you’ll need to be a successful yoga teacher is the ability to possess a sensitive temperament when running a class with autistic children.

This is because children with autism may find it difficult to understand the reasons behind their decision-making. 

You need to be sympathetic to this way of thinking because some decisions might not affect you but can be a major source of stress for those who live their lives on the autistic spectrum.

You can remove environmental factors that might result in children from your class experiencing a meltdown.

However, meltdowns are not entirely preventable because unexpected occurrences (such as random noises) can happen, resulting in this type of behaviour.

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If a child does have a meltdown during your class, it’s important to be sensitive to this type of behaviour to help them calm down: 

  • Offer time - Meltdowns can take some time to recover, especially after a child has experienced sensory overload.
  • Ask them how they’re feeling - After the meltdown has stopped and they’ve had time to recover.
  • Take them to a designated safe space - This will aid their recovery following a meltdown as it will be a place where they can have no external stimuli to upset them. In addition, you should avoid drawing attention to the student having a meltdown, and keep the rest of the class focused. 

If a child is experiencing a meltdown, it is important to understand that there is nothing you can do until the incident is over.

You should find the root cause of the meltdown and take measures to mitigate the risk of it happening again.

#5 - Effectively Manage Your Time While Instructing Autistic Children

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When you teach kids with yoga, you need to remember you will experience interruptions during your class, particularly with a younger age group. 

If your class is experiencing several interruptions and the children appear to be losing interest, you can take a break to help calm and refocus them. 

This means you’re likely to experience some classes running over their allotted time. With this in mind, it’s important to make sure you prioritise poses based on their importance, as well as having an effective way to close the yoga class.

It will make sure you can cover as much of your lesson plan as possible whilst providing adequate breaks to prevent your class from becoming bored or unfocused. 

Consider factoring 5 minutes into every 20-minute section of your session to better accommodate these breaks.

You should also consider allowing extra time for children to complete more advanced poses, especially those that are considered complicated for their age range.

This will give them enough time to become familiar with the exercises and perform them correctly.

Before You Go!

After reading this article, you should have some useful tips to run effective yoga classes with children diagnosed with autism, as well as better understand the skills you should prioritise to ensure successful sessions.

Remember, if you’ve not already done so, the ideal way to get officially qualified is with OriGym’s Ofqual-regulated Level 3 yoga course. You’ll learn everything you need to know to deliver effective classes for all your students.

You can learn about the other courses we offer by downloading our free course prospectus.

Written by Liam Donohoe

Content Writer and Fitness Enthusiast

Liam graduated from Liverpool John Moores University with a 2:1 in BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing. He has also co-written a short film that has been featured in several film festivals. In October 2023, he ran and completed his first half marathon and for 2024, he's now training to complete his first metric marathon.

In his spare time, Liam likes to teach himself German, read books, lift weights and listen to metal music that only passionate fans of the genre will understand.

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