Thank you for signing up!
Butterfly Stretch: Autistic Boy Finds Comfort in the Calm of Yoga
Andrew Benisek is proof that the ancient practice of yoga touches all souls.
This 9-year-old autistic boy from DeKalb, Ill., literally stumbled upon yoga one day while rooting through his mother’s collection of yoga VHS tapes.
He pushed play on Patricia Walden’s original bestseller, Yoga for Beginners, and was hooked. Today Andrew, officially diagnosed with pervasive developmental delay on the autism spectrum, owns dozens of yoga and meditation DVDs. Another perennial favorite is Rodney Yee’s AM/PM Yoga.
“The yogis speak very slowly and calmly and he likes that,” says Andrew’s mother, Nuala. “He doesn’t lay down in savasana, but he watches [the DVD] or is doing something else and has it on in the background.”
Andrew does participate more actively when he feels like it. “I do sitting poses and meditation,” he says. His favorite move? Proud warrior pose. Quite remarkably, Andrew even defines the word meditation as “mind, body and spirit.”
Experts suggest that yoga’s soothing nature may appeal to autistic and other developmentally disabled children whose sensory systems are in effect “overloaded.” The practice’s peaceful atmosphere — dim lights, quiet music and slow movements — can provide a welcome respite.
Inverted movements such as child’s pose, downward dog and triangle work the vestibular system, which helps with balance and special orientation — areas that are especially important for autistic children, says Britt Collins, a Salem, Oregon-based occupational therapist. Collins partnered with famed Survivor winner and yoga instructor Aras Baskauskas on the Yoga for Children with Special Needs DVD.
A restful routine
Nuala says her son’s fascination with yoga grew after Andrew’s initial discovery about three years ago. “We’d go shopping at Target or Borders, and he would just gravitate toward the fitness section.”
Today yoga is a near-daily break for Andrew. When he comes home from school he goes to his bedroom and puts on one of his yoga videos, and we just know to leave him alone for a half hour or so, explains Nuala. “If he has a whole day of stimulation during the school year or if he’s had a tough day, he goes right up there.”
Are his poses spot-on in terms of form? “No,” says Nuala, “but he just breaks out his mat and tries them.”
The practice seems to complement Andrew’s interest in all things tech-oriented. He loves computers — and elevators. “There’s not a remote control he can’t figure out,” says Nuala. “Andrew can ride a bike and scooter, but can’t catch a ball well or line up a baseball bat. He can keyboard and run a remote control, but holding a pencil is still a challenge.”
Yoga seems to provide numerous benefits for children struggling to navigate through a “neuro-typical” world. Some suggest it may offset an autistic child’s common preoccupation with objects rather than people, tapping into a calm, non-competitive realm in the brain.
Those who teach yoga for autistic or special needs children, including Collins, report that it can improve focus and concentration, one of autism’s greatest challenges, as well as help counter poor muscle coordination, ease tension and teach coping mechanisms.
Nuala sees yoga’s effect on Andrew’s sensory integration. “It helps him organize what’s coming in,” she says. Weight-bearing poses like plank, for example, are very beneficial for an autistic child, she suggests.
The benefit of beginner's mind
What’s so harmonious about yoga and the autistic child is the absence of ego. Often associated with “losing” oneself or finding a pure and compassionate heart, yoga seems to work for autistic children who come to the practice unhindered, fully open to the experience, with what is known as beginner’s mind.
“Andrew has almost no ego,” says Nuala. “He’s so encouraging and very genuine — almost Zen-like in being present in the moment.” While staying focused can be short-lived, admits Nuala, “He’s just a sweet little kid. He radiates a happy vibe.”
A spiritual openness is also encouraged in the Benisek home. “We don’t have a mainstream religion. We are more spiritual than formally religious,” says Nuala. “So we can be very confident when he is exploring the philosophy behind yoga — and we enjoy watching him do these things.”
What’s Andrew’s take? “It makes my body feel good,” he says of his yoga practice.
One pose that describes him, says Andrew, is butterfly stretch. What a fitting analogy for this beautiful yogi in the making.
Photos by Lindsay Kuntzi