In the yoga community, children with special needs are described differently. All children are recognized as special with some children having additional needs that require unique approaches to interaction, communication, and learning. It’s a “Zen-sational” way of viewing a child who is on the Autism Spectrum, lives with ADHD, or is developing differently due to behavioral, emotional, or sensorimotor challenges. This is exactly the perspective you should look for in anyone who offers to teach yoga to any child, but especially someone with additional needs. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits yoga can bring to children and, more importantly, the preferred qualities and qualifications of a yoga teacher or yoga program for children with additional, special needs.
There are many ways in which yoga can benefit all children and these benefits are particularly helpful to children with additional needs. Benefits can and will vary based on each child’s unique needs, the special challenges they live with, and how long they participate in a yoga program. In general, the benefits of yoga for children include:
A yoga teacher must be able to see the child who is right before them and begin with that child where they are in that moment. What does that mean? Very simply, that the teacher has a class structure but is able to let go of a preconceived plan to move with the rhythm and energy of the children as they are at that time in class. It also means that the teacher has let go of any expectations for where a child should be, what they are supposed to do, or how some book says they need to execute a yoga pose. A teacher who can truly be present for a child right where they are and as they are will be able to help that child gradually achieve a sense of fulfillment and self-efficacy in yoga. It then becomes possible to carry that sense of “I can do it” or “I did it” from the yoga mat and into other areas of the child’s life.
This is a bit similar to the question of sending a child to a regular public school or day care center versus a facility that is specifically designed for their needs. Yes, children with additional needs can participate in a class with more able bodied and typically developing peers. A typical yoga class with young children (age 3-9) moves quickly and can be very high energy. This can feel overwhelming to a child who has low body awareness or whose additional needs limit their ability to imitate movement. Consequently, when a child with additional needs is placed in a typical yoga class, that class will require two teachers: A teacher who leads the class as a whole and a teacher/parent/aide who stays with the child who has additional needs. The second person along side the child ensures that the child receives the attention and care necessary to benefit from the class.
On the other hand, a special-child yoga class may be more appropriate for children who are highly sensitive, who function better in a smaller group, or whose physical limitations require more hands-on help from an experienced teacher. Often, someone who has had in-depth training with children who have additional needs would teach these classes.
At a minimum, the person who teaches yoga for children with special or additional needs has completed a 200 hour Yoga Alliance approved teacher training and has had educational or practical/life experience with differently-abled children. Ideally, you would want the instructor to have obtained CEUs or certification in teaching yoga for children. For instructors who are teaching classes specifically and only for special children, they should have some advanced training or education that qualifies them for such a role. You may sometimes find occupational therapists or physical therapists teaching these classes after they’ve attended relevant yoga training. The most important step you can take before signing up for a class is to ask questions about a teacher’s experience and certification, to observe a class and see the range of children who are being taught, and to trust your own intuition about whether or not a class or a teacher is a good fit for your child.
“Yoga Generates Huge Benefits for Children with Autism.” Posted by YogaInternational.com https://yogainternational.com/article/view/yoga-generates-huge-benefits-for-children-with-autism
ChicagoTribune.com “Yoga offers benefits for people with special needs” posted 14 March 2012. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/ct-x-yoga-for-special-needs-0314-20120314-story.html
“Say Yes to Yoga for Kids with ADHD” https://www.additudemag.com/yoga-for-kids-with-adhd/
“6 Benefits of Yoga for Kids with Autism” https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/creating-inner-peace-the-benefits-of-yoga-for-children-with-autism-spectrum-disorder/
“Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Pediatric Physical Therapy: Spring 2008 - Volume 20 - Issue 1 - pp 66-80, doi: 10.1097/PEP.0b013e31815f1208. http://journals.lww.com/pedpt/Abstract/2008/01910/Therapeutic_Effects_of_Yoga_for_Children__A.10.aspx
Most pet owners know, cuddling up to a furry friend can improve one’s sense of well-being. And that’s the primary reason we so frequently see therapy animals in schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes. Children with a range of disabilities, medical conditions, and developmental or behavioral needs have benefitted from both animal interaction and companionship. Would a therapy pet or animal assisted therapy benefit your special needs child?
To answer that question it’s important to understand these key factors before reaching out to a therapy dog association about a pet for your child:
First, learn about how these animals are trained. Second, communicate with your health practitioner to assess your child’s level of readiness for either an in-home therapeutic animal partner, or a pet-assisted therapy program, in which a pet is present during therapeutic sessions but is not the child’s at-home companion animal. Finally, call and visit a reputable companion animal or assisted therapy animal training facility to identify the appropriate companion for your child. For the first and last items, we provide some general information in this article, and you can learn more at the websites listed below in the Resources.
Not just any animal can become a therapy companion. The general certification process for dogs, for example, is long and rigorous—including obedience training, good citizenship training, and an animal behavior evaluation that assess how the dog handles unpredictable circumstances and settings. There is also a process for assessing an animals’ fit for a particular client and their special need—be it emotional, developmental, physical, or a medical need. Additional training may be required for an animal to become certified to work with different situations or health conditions. These requirements may vary by organization, which is why it is important to work with your child’s health practitioners and the certifying organization in order to find the best fit.
Be it a dog, rabbit, or other furry four-legged friend, a companion animal for a special needs child is as much a responsibility for the child (and your family) as it is for the animal who will provide unconditional support, protection, and trust. The family, and ultimately the child to the extent of her or his abilities, will be responsible for the care of the animal.
If your child is able to accept that responsibility consistently, and meets the qualifications of the therapy animal agency, then he or she may be a candidate for an at-home companion animal. The benefits of a live-in companion animal for a special needs child include:
When thinking about companion animals, don’t assume a dog is your only option. Cats, rabbit, and even fish can provide many of the same benefits. They also may be a great first-step toward a companion animal that requires more responsibility.
If a companion animal at-home is not a suitable match for your child, animal assisted therapy could be an option. Studies have consistently shown that exposure to animals in therapy improves communications, reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and can bolster self-esteem and communication. (And, many of the above listed benefits also apply). Animal therapies can augment typical occupation, physical or even speech therapy. Animal assisted therapy not only requires a specially trained service animal, but also a uniquely trained animal handler or therapist. You will want to inquire about the training of both the animal and it’s handler when considering animal assisted therapeutic programs.
As you are starting the discussion about animal therapy options with your family and your health provider, and researching options in your local area, you can also take these next steps with your child:
Learn More About Therapy Dog Training at Therapy Dog International
Animal Assisted Therapy by Tails-U-Win in Connecticut
Therapy Dog Training by Tails of Joy in Connecticut
Soul Friends Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of CT includes dogs, horses, rabbits, and other animals.
Dalien, S. “Animal Therapy for children with Special Needs.” At SpecialEdResouce.com http://specialedresource.com/resource-center/animal-therapy-children-special-needs
Benefits of Pet Ownership for Children with Special Needs. BraiBalanceCenters.com
Animal Assisted therapy for Special Needs by PursuitofResearch.org
Diet and nutrition can play a crucial role in helping manage symptoms of ADHD. Recently, a lot of attention is being given to the amount of processed foods in the diet because these foods often contain additives and preservatives that are not natural to the food supply, and surely not natural to our bodies.
Some experts recommend people with ADHD avoid these substances:
AFCs are widely used by manufacturers across the globe to make food more colorful and enticing. Food dyes are most commonly found in foods marketed for children, but even adults are attracted to brightly colored foods. The amount of dyes used in foods has increased 500 % since the 1950s, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
These artificial molecules can bond to food or body protein, which means they can “hide in the body” and disrupt the immune system. This can have significant consequences that affect gastrointestinal function, auto-immunity and even brain and behavior. For some children, ADHD can be triggered and worsened by these synthetic colors, flavors and preservatives.
An elimination diet simply means certain foods and/or food additives are removed from a person’s diet in order to see if symptoms improve. Things may get mildly better, improve drastically or not at all, depending on the person. Dietary change can be tricky because what and when we eat are intricately tied to physical cues, social setting, mood, and the kind of food that is available and affordable. Elimination diets have been around since the 1970’s, pioneered by Benjamin Feingold, M.D. who studied the effect of food chemicals and the role of nutrition in addressing learning and behavior disorders in children.
Over the decades, many studies in Europe and the U.S. have tested Feingold’s approach and other types of elimination diets. While traditional research finds little support for radical restriction diets, evidence does indicate elimination diets have value and can bring about a change in ADHD symptoms in some children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now agrees that eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet is a reasonable option for children with ADHD.
In addition to eliminating AFCs, BHA, and BHT from the diet, some children may still require other support. This can include educational adjustments, behavior modification, life skills training, stress management, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and prescription medication. Like any medical or behavioral intervention, treatment benefits will vary based on a many factors such as when a child is diagnosed, the type of ADHD symptoms present, and co-occurrence of other medical conditions.
Parents often worry that following an elimination diet or other special diet will be expensive and/or difficult—that children will dislike the changes required. But that’s usually not the case. A quick search online brings up a variety of ADHD-diet friendly recipes and shopping tips to help families make it easy to incorporate the changes into their meal planning and still enjoy a variety of delicious foods. If the whole family gets onboard with the diet, the child feels supported and the health of the whole family can improve, too.
Just remember, dietary change and behavior is a complex area of study, and while research has not established a direct cause-and-effect, it may be worthwhile to talk with your child’s doctor or a nutritionist about the connection between what they’re eating and their behavior.
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a multi-faceted condition that can be triggered by varying environmental, behavioral, and biological factors. A child with ADHD shows an inability to focus and/or impulsivity that is not developmentally typical for her or his age. Symptoms of ADHD fall on a spectrum from predominantly inattentive on one end to predominantly hyperactive at the other end. To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child must have a cluster of symptoms present for 6 or more months that is significantly different from other kids the same age. The symptoms must affect the child’s ability to thrive in at least two environments—usually, home and school.
“Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes” (Jan 2016) Center for Science in the Public Interest https://cspinet.org/reports/seeing-red-report.pdf
“FDA Probes Link Between Food Dye, Kids’ Behavior: NPR” by April Fulton (2011) http://www.npr.org/2011/03/30/134962888/fda-probes-link-between-food-dyes-kids-behavior
Nigg, Joel T., & Holton, K. “Restriction and Elimination Diets in ADHD Treatment.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America 23.4 (2014), p. 937–953. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4322780/
Diet & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” Harvard Health Newsletter. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Diet-and-attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder
“Should You be Worried about Food Dyes?” by Anna Medaris Miller (March 2016) US News and World Reports http://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2016-03-17/should-you-be-worried-about-food-dyes
Diet & ADHD Research Studies. http://feingold.org/resources/studies/adhd/
Lyon, M. & Murray, T., “ADHD.”as cited in Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M.T. Textbook of Natural Medicine: 4th Ed. (2013) Chapter 150, p. 1252-1259.
Verlaet AAJ, Noriega DB, et al., “Nutrition, immunological mechanisms and dietary immunomodulation in ADHD.” European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2014 Jul) 23:7, p. 519-29. doi: 10.1007/s00787-014-0522-2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493267
“Two Preservatives to Avoid” http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food-safety/article/two-preservatives-avoid
“The ADHD Food Fix” by Sandy Newmark, M.D., https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-diet-for-kids-food-fix/
“ADHD Diets” WebMD http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/adhd-diets#1
Bell, C.C. A Comparison of Daily Consumption of Artificial Dye-containing Foods by American Children and Adults. (2013, March) Master’s Thesis Eastern Michigan University. http://www.feingold.org/Research/PDFstudies/Bell2013-open.pdf
Vojdani & Vojdani, “Immune reactivity to food coloring.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (2011) 21 Suppl, p. 1:52-62. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25599186#
Stevens, L.J. et al., “Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children.” Clinical Pediatrics (2014 Apr 24), p. 1-13. Accessed 9 April 2017: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0009922814530803?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&
Whether it’s summer vacation or holiday season travel, preparing a child or adult family member with autism for long-distance travel is a major undertaking. From packing to getting on the road, there are a few key steps you that can help make travel less stressful and more comfortable for your family.
There are two important differences between holiday travel and vacation destination travel. First, with winter holiday travel such as during Hanukkah and Christmas, your purpose is typically to see family and friends. In all likelihood, your family will be staying at the home of someone you know and trust, and with whom you can easily take steps to help acclimate your special needs family member. Even if you stay at a nearby hotel, your visit will revolve around activities with family and friends. That’s very different from staying at a resort or theme park destination, where you plan to “see and do” with much less control over your surroundings.
The second issue with holiday season travel is volume. More people are on the road during the holidays. Lines are longer, space is more congested, there’s more noise and lights, and security is heightened. You can opt to travel at times when crowds are predicted to be less heavy, but those tickets might not fit the family budget or schedule.
Whether by plane or train, the following tips can help you manage traveling with an autistic family member with greater peace-of-mind:
Once you’ve chosen your mode of travel, you want to help your family member deal with fear of the unknown, If you’ve chosen airline or train travel, slowly introduce the process to your child until you can execute a practice day prior to your departure date.
Finally, schedule a few rides to the airport or train station. First, just drive there. A few days later drive there, park the car, and walk in. To further help you with the familiarization process, call your travel agent (if you’ve used one) about scheduling an orientation for your child. Also, search online for a Wings for Autism program near you and call the TSA Cares helpline. Both have programs for autistic passengers. Many airlines, airports and train stations also have their own programs and tours for children with special needs.
A quick Google search will reveal dozens of different ways to pack your bags. The most important thing is to make sure you have medications and your child’s favorite snacks packed in your carry on bag. If you are flying, it’s also a good idea to place one or two outfits for your special needs family member in more than one suitcase. This way, if one bag gets lost, you still have outfits your child is comfortable wearing. Also, have your child pick one or two small plush toys to bring on board. You might have to explain why they can’t bring their big blanket on board, but maybe you can ask grandma to keep one just like it at her house.
Even if all the preparation was done well, your child may still have a meltdown. If you are concerned about being separated from your child, have a temporary safety tattoo made and placed on their forearm. Alternatively, you can have a purchase a Medical ID bracelet or a safety alert t-shirt.
In the event that your child becomes anxious just as you begin to board the train or plane, you may want to have medication on hand to calm their nerves. Speak with your child’s physician about this a well before your trip.
Checked-in, On Board & Underway
Once on board, you will want to have tools to help your child feel less overwhelm from the hustle all around them. Your “kid’s pack” might include noise-cancelling headphones, music and games, dark sunglasses, books, and anything handheld that will keep her engaged. If you were able to reserve a window seat, that may be a great option for your child.
Phew! You’ve made it through the trip and arrived safely at your family’s holiday destination. Hopefully, you’ve read books or watched videos about your destination and shown pictures of unfamiliar family members to your child—maybe even had a few Skype calls. To make your family holiday time merry, make sure to brief the family members you’ll be visiting about what to expect and how to interact with your child.
Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism – Autism Speaks
Wings for Autism program to help prepare children for air travel.
TSA Cares Helpline: 1-855-787-2227 https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support
Amtrak reservations for persons with a disability
Holiday Travel First Aid Check List – https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/family-services/checklist.pdf
Specialized Travel Services for Persons with Special Needs
Autistic Traveler – information source and services for travel with autistic children.
Autistic Globetrotting – a resource for international travel with an autistic family member
For a child on the autism spectrum, the shimmery swish of tinsel and flashing holiday lights can cause a meltdown of epic proportion. There are several things you can do to manage sensory overstimulation and help your special needs child thrive during the holiday hustle.
Parents and caregivers need to be aware of their child’s tolerance level for different types of stimulation and the duration for which they can handle it. Some kids on the spectrum will have an immediate reaction to any kind of stimuli, especially unfamiliar situations, sights, and sounds. Other children may tolerate hours or even days of excitement leading up to your family’s day of merriment—until they reach a tipping point. You can help your child maintain equilibrium by incorporating some of the following tips in your holiday plans.
Plan to be Prepared. Experienced parents of special needs children have learned that preparation is the first and most important step. While you won’t be able to prepare for everything, you can plan ahead in ways that will ease your child, yourself and any family members into the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays.
Create Consistent Traditions. Every child likes to count on something special every holiday and your special needs child may need that more than other kids. Whatever it is—new holiday pajamas, making a specific type of cookie, hanging stockings in a certain place—find what helps your child connect with the holiday and repeat that meaningful activity each year.
Keep Family Informed. This is especially important for extended family that do not live with or near you but with whom you will celebrate. Let them know what to expect from your child and remind them of the range of stimuli—including holiday hugging—that may overwhelm your child. Ask them to respect boundaries and to take no offense if you have to leave the party early.
Create a Retreat Space. In your own home, and to the extent possible in the homes you will visit, identify a quiet space where you can retreat with your child.
Yes, Your Can Visit Santa! Go when the lines are shortest and the mall is quietest. Some shopping centers designate a specific date/time for special needs children to visit with Santa, often called a “Sensitive Santa Program” (see Resources list at end of article).
Rest & Recovery Days. You’ll feel pressure to see and do it all during the holidays. Most of us who don’t have special needs feel like we need the energy of a triathlete to get through it all. Even if your child appears to be handling things terrifically, schedule “rest and recovery days” where you stay at home and disengage from dashing about town.
Partner with other Families. Connect with other special needs families in your community. You will find support and wisdom from those who have more experience and who can help guide you to find what will work for your child and your family.
Give Gifts that Matter to Your Child. You’ll drive yourself crazy shopping for age appropriate gifts that may not necessarily be suitable for a spectrum child. Your child may have her or his heart set on a toy that makes no sense to you. But it resonates with your kid on some level. Where possible, include these gifts that your child is drawn to. It may also help to make a holiday gift list to share with other family members who will shop for your child.
Take Care of Yourself. You are your child’s world. If you are burnt out, they will sense that and it will discomfort them. Take time to care for your physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. This also means forgiving yourself when things don’t go as planned.
The holiday season for a special needs child and their family can be just as joyous as any other family’s celebration. Perhaps, even more so as you create simple traditions that fill everyone’s heart with all that truly matters.
Information on various holiday preparations: ParentCoachingforAutisum.com
Downloadable guide for ages birth and up; covers gift giving, family preparation, Santa visits, Hanukkah. Holiday Survival Guide for Families with Special Needs Children AbiltyPath.org
Sensory Friendly Santa Programs: https://www.autismspeaks.org/santa-2016
Parenting Special Needs Magazine “Surviving the Holidays” by Donna B. Wexler
Travel, Photo, Shopping & Activity Tips: AutisumSpeaks.org
Autism Speaks Downloadable PDF for Reducing Holiday Stress: https://www.autismspeaks.org/docs/holidaytips.pdf
Enjoying the Holidays with an Autistic Child: AutisumSupportNetwork.com
Personal Interviews with parents of special needs children.