Yoga Techniques Applied to Autism Spectrum Disorder — (Part 1 of 3)

Silvia Edith Fernández, (Sadhana), Ciudad de Tolhuin, Provincia de Tierra del Fuego, Argentina


The present report is the result of the systematization of an experiment. This was carried out during six years with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The children were assisted with individual, frequent and systematic yoga meetings within an interdisciplinary context.

The implemented sessions used principles and patterns defined in the work known as Connected Integration Pattern.

The objective was focused on unblocking the perceptive channels, specifically those involved in the vestibular, proprioceptive and touch systems, with the purpose of lowering or deleting the identified alterations and disorders in children with autism. This was the way to improve their communicational level, and therefore, their interaction with the environment. The results showed that the children who attended this program were able to reduce their anxiety levels, they understood and regulated emotional states and as a consequence, they improved their living standard and their interaction levels with each other. The conclusions are highly optimistic and open the door to a new knowledge.


Cases of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) have increased by 700% in the last decades. In 1975, it was one child in every five thousand; in the year 2000, one in every 300 and seven years ago, one in every 150 was affected. The updated statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States indicate that nowadays, one in every 68 children is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. That implies an increase of 30% in just over three years.*1

The statistics about Trastorno General del Desarollo (TGD), general disorder of development, and autism in Argentina are neither clear nor updated, though most of the specialists consider that the local statistics are similar to those of the United States, where more boys are affected than girls by four to one.

The present work focuses on the communication skills of a child diagnosed with autism. Communication is a variation of useful behaviour, which is used within the structure of social interchanges, with the intention of transferring information, observations, inner states or changes in the immediate environment. It includes not only the verbal behaviour but also the non-verbal.

Regarding children with autism, social relationships represent an area where difficulties are shown; thus, it is not surprising to observe that their effective communication is significantly altered or disabled. Communication and social abilities are closely related.

The factors which determine the autism diagnosis make reference to sensory aspects, behaviour, social feedback, inflexibility and rigidity. All of them are directly or indirectly interwoven with the communicational aspects.

Communication is based on an individual's ability to differentiate between one's own existence and that of another individual. Without this differentiation there would be no need for communication. There is no need for communication without differentiation. Manifestation of expression through words and gestures comes later at a second stage. Since 1970, there have been various investigations of people with ASD, that register the impact on their development within their communicative and linguistic skills.

Nowadays, a focused and systematic intervention program is developed to deal with treatment for children with autism. This program focuses on communication and linguistic aims. This gap in the development of language contributes mainly to the sustained behaviours of social isolation, preventing or restricting other learning.

A working hypothesis will be settled within this background considering whether 'children diagnosed with autism will be able to perform at a communication level superior than the starting point, through specific and systematic practice of yoga specified techniques'.

It has already been mentioned that communication is essential regarding both its expressive and receptive levels. Recovering or rehabilitating a viable and functional way of communicating for a person with autism will enable a behaviour more in accordance with the environment, help reduce anxiety levels, and understand and control emotional states. Consequently, the living standard and the ability to live in society will be improved.

The aim of this study is to unblock the perceptive channels, specifically those involved in the vestibular, proprioceptive and touch systems, through yoga trainings, having as a purpose to diminish or eradicate alterations identified as dysfunctions in children with autism, to improve their communication level and their interaction with the environment. The intervention program is composed of the following aims to guide the task towards the different manifestations of communicative skills:

  • Identify different alterations and dysfunctions.
  • Detect channels that are affected.
  • Apply yoga sessions using techniques that act in the noticed areas.
  • Record the observations that result in the release of those channels.
  • Analyse periodically the results with an interdisciplinary team.

Theoretical framework

The progress of technology applied to medical science and the need of specialization has reduced the understanding of the human being from the global perspective. By the overwhelming information, the need to standardize, to disaggregate, establish relationships and then generate principles, has taken man away from science. In this process, the possibility of understanding that in each person a huge quantity of factors come together that make him a unique and individual being is made difficult.

Nevertheless, all this knowledge is valid in the hands of professionals who attempt to have a holistic vision of man.

This vision conceives the human being as an organism, a unit in development, who is much more than the sum of the parts and supports that the training must approach that totality. Thus, it is necessary to know the different dimensions of the person with whom the task is established as well: physical, physiological, emotional, mental, social and spiritual.

From this approach we delve further into a paradigm which supports a concept of complementarity based on the inter connectivity between all the parts in the universe.

Within the human body, different processes of communication happen in the same way as they happen among individuals and in societies. The body is contemplated as an ecosystem where the cells are its members. They organize themselves in cooperative groups named tissues, which associate and develop bigger functional groups, the organs. Organs unite in systems. There are a lot and varied sorts of communication at each of these levels. We can think of each cell as an individual, establishing a social life, and at the same time interacting with the environment, replying to impulses through permanent feedback and communication between all the members and the brain.

This network of interacting cells, communicating with each other is located in an aqueous medium. The human body is not mainly solid, but 80% is water enclosed inside membranes. Communication is produced through this way. The yoga holistic physiology contemplates this communication as a supreme intelligence, a complete assessment of who the being is. The inter cellular communication creates the experience of each physiology.

This is present in every aspect of the human being, in all dimensions. Yoga has an exhaustive knowledge of the different systems that communicate the internal and external physiology. Many of the hatha yoga sessions are related to the improvement of such communication.*8

For example, the asanas, the series of poses, create pressures through the external physiology achieving communication with the internal physiology through more subtle and deeper processes. In this way, they join together and connect various systems. Each unique body part communicates with each of the other parts, not only through nerves but also through the connective tissue and chemical substances. In this paradigm, the connective tissues gain extreme importance. We can think about them as water bags created around the organs and when they relate to each other by pressure or other factors, information is transferred constantly from one section of the connective tissue to the following section. This connection reaches to an inter-cellular level.*8

When dealing with the most subtle effects of yoga, we make reference to these interconnections and effects that reach the inter-cellular level. Each organ and each cell, as well as the nervous and the connective tissue connections, is bathed, swimming in a chemical ocean.*8

The quantity of information received from the internal incentives is partially caused by these chemicals. The awareness we can have about these cells depends on the fluency of the means of communication. If there is a break in it, we lose the contact with a body area.*8 The most probable place where this communication is broken is around the joints, which are the areas that create segments.

The segmentation of the body allows movement and this happens when muscles are wrapped around a joint. If there is an excess of tension in it, the intercommunication among the different parts of our body will be affected at different levels, impacting directly or indirectly on the quality of communication in all the stages.*8 The most important receivers of the nervous impulses that form part of the proprioceptive and vestibular system are located in this area of the joints.

The proprioceptive system is the sense that informs the organism of the positions of the muscles and integrates this relative information to the adjacent parts to the body scheme in this time and space. In this way, the person knows the position of his body without the necessity of touching or looking at himself.

The proprioception regulates the movement, direction and range. It allows reactions and automatic responses, and takes actions in the development of the body scheme and in its relationship with the space, sustaining the planned motor action. Balance control, coordination of both sides of the body, the maintenance of the alert level of the central nervous system and the influence in the emotional and behavioural development are other functions where it takes action with more autonomy.

It is integrated within different nervous system receivers. The skin receptors give information about the muscular condition and its movement. They contribute to the sense of position and to the characteristics of the movement, especially in the limbs where they are numerous.

Capsules and ligaments are structures that hold a series of receptors that activate them when they bear a burden exercised by the muscular tension. They detect the position and the movement of the implied joint. Their relevance is observed when these structures are damaged.

The Golgi sinewy organs are sensorial receptors located in the tendon and they measure the tension developed in the muscle.*4

The vestibular system controls movement in the proper sense. It processes the information about gravity strength, the relative position of the head in space and movement. It is in close relation with the proprioceptive and visual systems.

The sense of touch is responsible for the stimuli perceptions that include contact, pressure, temperature and pain. Its sensorial organ is the skin. Most of the sensations are perceived through the corpuscles which are the receptors located inside the connective tissue capsules and are distributed along the different skin layers.*3

The Neuron Mirror System (NMS) plays an important role in the inner communication as well, which will allow the child's motor, mental and emotional development.

Morphologically, these specular neurons don't distinguish themselves from the other nerve cells, but through investigations it has been recognized that they fulfil a double function: on the one hand, as a motor function they participate actively when the individual is doing an action; on the other hand, as the empathetic function in which each neuron activates itself by observing the action performed by the other one.*10 A lot of work has been done since this discovery which has opened up possibilities that cut across the neurophysiology field. Actions, feelings and emotions of others can be made known through them.*7


*3. Bachelor Francisco Tarantino Ruíz, Proprioception: Theoretical Introduction
*7. Rizzolatti, G. y C. Sinigaglia (2006), The mirror neurons: mechanisms of emotional empathy, Barcelona, Paidos
*8. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Yoga Darshan (2007), Munger, Bihar, India
*10. Descubriendo_el_cerebro_y_la_mente_n74.pdf (Discovering mind and body)