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An Autistic Adult’s Growth Through the World of Yoga

While attempting to write a story for Autism around the Globe, I was given the following advice from a very wise man: “Write ‘your’ story.”   As I pondered “my story,” which was to be about yoga and autism, I could not help but think about the divergent paths that have crossed and led me to this juncture.

With the advent of inclusion in the public school system, the nature of my job was changing quickly.  As a school counselor, I was now responsible for teaching social skills to a population of students with whom I had no experience and little training to help in an effective manner.  I began attending workshops and reading and learning as much as I could about autism.  The parents of the children with whom I worked were a significant source of information and experience.  The children themselves became my inspiration and my most knowledgeable teachers; however, the more I learned, the more I realized how much I did not know.

At around the same time, I was beginning to explore the world of yoga.  Taking classes for personal growth and fulfillment eventually led me to seek more knowledge.  As I completed a teacher certification program, and realized the numerous benefits of a yoga practice, I felt that I should share this advantageous experience with my students, specifically those with autism.  How could it not help with the stress and anxiety noted as a hallmark symptom?  Research led me to Sonia Sumar and the Yoga for the Special Child Program and Joanne Spence with Yoga Ed.   Equipped with new skills and a profound enthusiasm to share with children the practice of yoga as an effective tool, I embarked on teaching children’s yoga classes in various studios.

And then there was William*.  A director of a studio where I had worked called to say that she had a request from a family for a yoga instructor to teach their son, a young man with autism.  Would I be interested?  Apprehensive, yet possessing a strong desire to apply my newly acquired knowledge, I readily agreed.  William’s assessment lasted an hour.  During the assessment William’s parents and support staff watched.  Although he could not speak, William allowed me to guide him through a series of yoga postures to determine his level of ability and need.  This would enable me to develop and plan individualized lessons.  Hopefully, yoga would provide an avenue for finding a place of calming peacefulness.

As I worked with William, I also observed how the residential personnel, his siblings and parents interacted with him. My intention was to learn as much as I could from the significant people in his life.  It appeared to me that the staff operated from a well-defined behavioral approach.  William’s three older sisters continually demonstrated their love and support in their interactions with him.  His parents are both gentle guides and insightful models of encouragement.  Their wisdom and experience have proven invaluable in my work with their son.  Without a doubt, my greatest, most intuitive educator in this endeavor is William.

Sunday, early afternoon, has become our time together.  William and I meet together for our yoga practice.  As in all yoga classes, we begin with the breath and end with Namaste.  And in between we work together, communicating in our way as to how the class will progress.  It is during this special time that our roles reverse and William becomes my teacher.  Suggestions for the various poses come from me.  The true inspiration and path we eventually take comes from William.  He has taught me, most importantly, how to listen.  When I don’t, he lets me know.  And when I do, he rewards me. His smile is so genuine; his laugh contagious.  At times, he looks in to my eyes with such depth that I think and sometimes ask, what are you trying to tell me?  At these times, I have the strongest desire to see inside his brain and solve the mystery.   But then I am reminded that the symbol for autism is the puzzle piece.

The teacher in me cannot help but reflect upon the progress William has achieved.  In yoga, practitioners are taught to listen to their bodies.  William has become the model in this philosophy.  He often initiates, through body movement, where the practice will take us. At times, he follows without direction a pre-established pattern of poses.  He sets up for our practice by locating our yoga mats, bringing them to the proper location and setting the mats in the proper space.  From a social perspective, he has allowed me to enter his world and engage with him in a joint attention activity with reciprocal exchange.  He communicates with intention, often utilizing gestures.  He listens and comprehends as evidenced by his following directions and his willingness to continue when provided with explanations of what will happen next if he complies with specific requests.   William and I have developed a social relationship in which he uses verbal greetings to say hello and goodbye.  To end our time together, he uses the “hands in prayer at heart center” pose and practices repeating “Namaste” which is the Sanskrit word for “I honor the spirit in you, which is also in me” (Deepak Chopra).  I truly honor the spirit in William.  Together we have come a long way in our yoga practice.  Our time together is a gift which I treasure.

Catherine A. Mink
School Counselor (Certified K to 12; Certificate in Autism)
Registered Yoga Teacher (Certified Yoga for the Special Child and Yoga Ed)

*The names have been changed to protect the family’s confidentiality.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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