Local Doctoral student studies benefits of yoga in children

. March 31, 2017.
Local PhD student Morgan Wright is bringing her love of yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Local PhD student Morgan Wright is bringing her love of yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

While the popularity of yoga has surged in the US, little is known about its benefits for children on the autism spectrum. Morgan Wright, Doctoral Fellow in Clinical Psychology at Eastern Michigan University, decided to help fill that information void.

An uncommon intervention for a common diagnosis

Although the official estimate of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is 1 in 68, Wright discovered a need for a yoga research study due to “a lack of interventions for children with ASD, specifically targeted at improving motor skills and increasing physical activity.” She noted that autistic children are often more sedentary, not being involved in as many activities as their typically-developing peers. Having practiced yoga for many years, and with her interest in ASD, Wright says, “I wanted to develop an intervention that would improve motor skills and be fun for children.”

Notable progress and fun

As part of the study, Wright works individually with each child, catering to their needs to determine what works best for varied interests, strengths, challenges, and levels of functioning.  Jennifer Clark, whose 10-year-old son participates in the research study, states “we are always looking for different ways of improving how he deals with being on the spectrum.” Since working with Wright, she has witnessed improvements with her son’s balance issues, as well as his fine motor skills.

Wright also points to yoga’s ability to help autistic children become more engaged and have fun by including yoga in their routine.  Routines can be valuable to children with ASD and yoga often serves as a perfect match. “The poses can be organized in a distinct pattern, so the children know what to expect during each session,” notes Wright. When her study started, participants depended on visual and verbal cues when attempting a pose. Through time, practice, and repetition Wright has noticed her participants taking initiative and now leading the poses.

While progress is loosely defined, Wright sees positive reactions and enhanced engagement from her participants. One child imagines each session as a new episode of their “yoga show”.  Progressing through poses, the child enjoys giving designations such as, “Action!” and “Cut!”, as on a TV show. Another child in Wright’s study is upfront about his physical limitations and asks for assistance when needed. With each session, Wright notices a strengthening rapport and greater social engagement which “suggests that activities like yoga may improve areas beyond the motor skills targeted by the intervention.”

Potential benefits of yoga

In fact, increased social-communication skills are just one of many potential benefits of yoga for children with autism. Other possible positive outcomes are greater awareness and expression of emotions, reduced anxiety, increased body awareness, and a more well defined sense of self. As Wright continues her study, she hopes to continually see improvements with the childrens’ strength and balance, as well as a reduction in anxiety and other psychological difficulties.

 

If you have a child on the autism
spectrum between the ages of 6-12,
who is interested in participating in the research study,
contact Morgan Wright at mwrigh57@emich.edu