Autism Speaks offers a straightforward definition of Autism as “a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges.”
Although each individual exhibits varying forms of Autism (hence the “spectrum” of Autistic diagnoses), some groups of symptoms and behaviors are commonly associated with the disease. Catherine Lord, Director of the University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center, offers the following answers about Autism Spectrum diagnoses:
ASDs are defined by difficulty in three areas of behaviors: 1) reciprocal social interaction, 2) communication and 3) repetition and insistence on sameness. Exactly how an individual is impacted across these three areas varies greatly. There is no one behavior that is present in all individuals with ASDs or that would rule out ASDs in every person. Many, but not all, individuals with ASD have language delays. Some individuals with ASD, but not all, have lifelong language disorders. Some, but not all, individuals with ASD also have mental retardation that affects development of nonverbal problem-solving, everyday self-care (e.g., dressing; academics) and language.
Within the category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (sometimes known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders or PDD), there are a number of subtypes that are associated with different levels of severity in different areas.
Autism is the disorder that has received the most study and has been recognized for the longest time. It is defined by the presence of difficulties in each of the three areas listed above (social deficits, communication problems and repetitive or restricted behaviors), with onset in at least one area by age 3 years. It may or may not be associated with language delays or mental retardation.
Asperger Syndrome is a form of ASD that is often identified later (e.g., after age 3, usually after age 5) and is associated with the social symptoms of autism and some repetitive interests or behaviors, but not with language delay or mental retardation. Many parents and professionals use this term with older and/or more verbally fluent individuals with autism because they feel it is less stigmatizing.
Rett Syndrome and Child Disintegrative Disorder are both very rare, severe forms of ASD that have particular patterns of onset, and, in the case of Rett Syndrome, a specific genetic basis.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is a form of ASD used to describe individuals who meet criteria for autism in terms of social difficulties but not in both communication and restricted, repetitive behaviors. It can also be used for children who do not have clearly defined difficulties under age 3 or later. This term is often used by professionals when they are not quite sure of a diagnosis or when the symptoms are mild. Several epidemiological studies have reported that as many or more children have PDD-NOS or less clear symptoms as have classic autism. The difficulties of children and adults with Asperger Syndrome or PDD-NOS are similar, and milder than those of individuals with autism, suggesting that these distinctions are fairly arbitrary and should not be used to limit services or benefits.
Mari D. is a beginning Yoga student at the studio where I teach and work as the studio assistant. I received a phone call from her asking about private Yoga classes for her son, Finn, who had been diagnosed years earlier with PDD. Later, I received a book, beautifully and lovingly created for teachers and caregivers, all about Finn and his situation, his development, diagnosis, and likes and dislikes. In speaking further with Mari, she shared that the family had moved to Seattle from Houston in order for Finn to participate in therapeutic programs offered in this area that they could not find in Houston.
I was inspired by his parents’ dedication to giving Finn every opportunity to thrive and develop into the bright and lovely boy he naturally is.
Mari had heard that Yoga was an appropriate therapy for ASD. The sole text I was able to locate on Yoga and ASD is an inspiring book about the journey of Yoga practicing mother and her son who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, Yoga for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents and Caregivers by Dion E. Betts and Stacey W. Betts.
The Betts explain about Yoga and ASDs in the introduction to their book:
The physical symptoms of ASDs, while seemingly slight, may drastically impair wellbeing and health. These children need an appropriate and enjoyable physical program. The practice of yoga assists individuals with both strength and balance. The poses improve strength in the large muscles of the body and may increase the tone of the muscles. Yoga poses may also help to improve balance by helping your child become aware of the placement of his or her legs and feet in relations to the rest of the body. The resulting muscle strength and balance control may improve coordination. When the poses are practiced consistently, your child will feel more comfortable in his or her body, which can carry over into other areas of their life.
Another prevalent feature of children with ASDs is that they have many sensory issues. For example, they are often extremely sensitive to bright lights. These children also cannot tolerate loud noise. The taste, texture, and smell of food may present a problem to them . . . Some children, when presented with such stimuli, become upset and agitated. This behavior may cause your child’s peers to view him or her as different. These behaviors may lead to social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
Yoga may address and decrease these sensory problems in several ways. First, the physical practice of yoga soothes the nervous system. Yoga provides poses of flowing movements that allow energy to be released from the body. As your child goes through the movements of the yoga program, his or her body will become soothed and anxiety will lessen. By practicing poses, an over burdened sensory system is calmed and quieted. Moreover, the physical poses offer a non-competitive physical activity that releases pent-up energy. By practicing yoga, your child will have a respite from his or her usual experience of a sensory overloaded body.
Practicing yoga may help a child feel more at peace with his or her body. Once your child is calmer and more focused, he or she may be able to concentrate better on learning social skills.
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