The following question was recently submitted to a yoga therapy discussion group by a yoga teacher/yoga therapist:

I have been asked to work with a teen with Aspergers. The parent is particularly concerned with breath work and anxiety Any ideas on protocol and methods to increase his connection to others?

Answer:

I sense that you already know how to teach yoga for breath work and reducing anxiety. That goes without saying. Your real question is how to use yoga to improve his socialization skills.

Yoga is great for teaching socialization.

Yoga is a age-appropriate healthy leisure activity that is appropriate for people of all ages and all abilities — as long as you adapt your idea of what yoga has to be.

Thus, if your client will do yoga with you, you can eventually make it possible for your client to attend a public yoga class at some point. That is called generalizing what s/he learns with you to other situations. If that is going to be one of your public classes, one option is clear–teach the teen the routine that you lead in your classes.

Teach the appropriate behaviors for attending a yoga class. From the beginning be very clear and specific about social rules. (Read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” http://www.amazon.com/Curious-Incident-Dog-Night-Time/dp/1400032717 for an idea of how this may be done. The TV show “Parenthood” also gives a good depiction of what works and doesn’t work with kids on the spectrum.

You may wish to bring your client to a class that only has one or two willing yoga students to ease the adjustment to a public class.

In your neuro-typical (NT) class, you may need to enlist the assistance of your students to make the student feel welcome and comfortable. Of course, your NT students need to be on best behavior, as well. The Asperger’s student may not be able to understand humor. This will need to be introduced slowly. Eventually, the client may be able to attend other classes.

I have my own way of assessing the client during an intake session, and reevaluate over time, so that I get a sense of which chakra energies may need to be increased or decreased with the client and use this as a guideline for the selection of asana and other practices.

Some have had success with partner yoga and yoga games. I find that these do not serve a teen with Asperger’s as it is more beneficial to help the client learn the routines and social behaviors that are appropriate in a typical public yoga class, thus allowing them to attend classes with people their own age, especially as they reach adulthood.

I like to translate the second sutra of Patanjali as the purpose of yoga is to calm the distractions of the body and mind and to increase the ability to concentrate on a single object. I find this to be an ideal intention for working with people with ASDs and Asperger’s.

Persons on the autism spectrum often display challenging behaviors. With Asperger’s this may manifest in as echolalia, such as repeating phrases out of context or repeating what you say back to you, or obsessive fixation on a favorite topic, such as trains.

Yoga is perfectly suited to dealing with this. I redirect the conversation by having a reinforcer that the client is working for. Some like to bounce on an exercise ball or a mini-trampoline. Find out from them or their parent, teacher or Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) what reinforcers work for this client. Do they use a token exchange system of rewards to reinforce appropriate behaviors or reduce unwanted behaviors?  You may not need to use the latter, but it is always good to have the former.

I will say, “Bill, what are you working for today?” “Savasana.” I work with a 17-year-old who loves music and in particular a chant I sing, “The River is Flowing,” when he lies in savasana before our closing. He unfailingly requests it at the beginning of our sessions and reminds me throughout the session that it is coming. Only use a reinforcer as long as it works. Sometimes this client needs a different reinforcer, such as if he pays attention, he will be allowed to go to his favorite bookstore.

If a client starts reciting episodes of Wheel of Fortune, or engages in an obsessive discussion about insects, I will have them chant bija sounds with me, choosing one or more bija sounds or vowels that relate to the chakras that I choose to emphasize in a pose. I learned this in Prana Yoga Teacher Training with Jeffrey Migdow, but the bija sounds are readily available online or in chakra charts if you don’t use them yourself in your practice. Having them chant with me shakes them out of their distracting entrainment and serves as a reset.

As far as techniques, you will begin with “pairing,” i.e., making the experience of working with you fun–pairing you and fun. It may take some time–be patient and trust the process. You may not be doing a full yoga routine the whole time at first. If your client is ready to do yoga without complaint, most of the work is done. Teens do well with a vigorous practice such as one including Sun Salutation.

I teach in a reverse chain. As the ritual of the beginning and end of a class are similar, I teach this first. Then I add poses working backwards. Resting poses first–sukhasana or siddhasana, savasana, makarasana, tadasana. Savasana is the big “reward” of course. I alternate vigorous poses with resting poses. Warm-ups are good to add next. Seated twist, knee down twist for integration. Forward bend. Then I teach Surya Namaskar, adding a new pose each session to extend it or at a pace the client can handle. I add other poses and practices over time.

I hope this helps you get started.

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