Calming benefits for youth with autism found in yoga 

By Robin Gualtieri

Enzo Emmerson Gualtieri was born on Dec 30, 2005. We were blessed with a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Right around Enzo’s first birthday I became pregnant with his brother Eli, and as a result the brothers are only 20 months apart in age. It was around the time Eli was born that I started to notice Enzo wasn’t really talking and he didn’t respond when spoken to. He often engaged in repetitive behavior such as opening and closing doors and gates. Transitioning from one activity to another was almost always accompanied by an emotional meltdown. By the time he was 2 years old, my husband, my mother and I all knew something was wrong. I talked to his doctor and she referred me to the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Early Intervention and a developmental pediatrician.

Enzo was tested by Early Intervention and qualified for Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy. We started therapy quickly and were blessed with wonderful compassionate professionals, who taught us a lot about how to interact with Enzo. But, it took more than a year to get an appointment with a developmental pediatrician. We were happy to continue with the speech and behavior therapy, but were impatient to find the cause of his peculiarities. When Enzo was 4 we finally had a diagnosis… autism. He still didn’t respond when spoken to, and he often engaged in repetitive behaviors. When he did speak, it was mostly just “scripting” (quoting words or phrases from favorite TV shows and movies). We had the diagnosis, and although we were overwhelmed we weren’t really surprised.

I knew for a long time that Enzo was not developing properly and the diagnosis really prompted me to do something. Enzo started taking speech therapy and occupational therapy at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation in Allentown, in addition to the therapy he was receiving through the Lehigh Valley Intermediate Unit.

My husband and I started researching autism and finding out as much as we possibly could. What we found is every case truly is like a puzzle and every autistic child is different. My mother-in-law gave me a book “The Soul of Autism,” by William Stillman. The first chapter is called “The world needs autism,” and the premise of the book is that children with autism are here to teach the world compassion, trust, acceptance and patience. I also turned to practicing yoga, first for myself and later for Enzo. I found the book “Yoga for the Special Child,” by Sonia Sumar, that helped me develop a “bed yoga” routine for Enzo that helps calm both of us down at bedtime.

Shortly after Enzo was born, I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. Over the years my yoga practice has been my refuge from the stresses of parenting an autistic child. The best way, and sometimes the only way, to teach a child yoga is to simply let them watch and learn and eventually they will imitate. My children also benefit from my practice because it keeps me calm and helps me cultivate patience.

In addition to all the therapy and yoga, we decided to try a dairy- and gluten-free diet for Enzo because we had read many autistic kids do very well on this diet. At that time, Enzo and Eli were in preschool. Every day when I picked them up, I asked them about their day. Eli, who was 3, was more than happy to tell me about his day, but I still got no response from Enzo, who was 4 ½. Two months after we started the diet, he started answering my questions. A year later he no longer needed speech therapy.

Enzo’s therapists taught us about deep pressure stimulation, another helpful coping activity. This is a practice in which you give a child a pillow or stuffed toy when he is feeling anxiety. If you press the objects into him, roll it over him and “hug” him with it, it can sometimes alleviate stress and anxiety and bring him out of an excitable state.

Having two young boys (normal or on the autism spectrum) can be challenging. It was apparent very quickly that they both needed activity. We enrolled them in swimming lessons, which was also a necessity at the time as their grandmother had a pool at her house. We wondered if Enzo could follow directions in the class. We wondered if he would get frustrated and melt down. But he took to the water like a fish. He gained confidence in himself and his abilities. Awkward on land, he was soon doing backstrokes and retrieving toys from the bottom of the pool. In short order, he was swimming underwater, racing other kids and even learning to dive.

Enzo, with his new-found confidence, began to get interested in other activities. Not unlike other kids, sometimes he gets into a sport or activity very heavily at first, then after awhile loses interest. This is typical. What’s not typical is his endless drive and singular focus on “getting it perfect.” He gets frustrated and can lose his temper if he doesn’t pick up skills quickly. He’s a perfectionist, which in and of itself isn’t bad, but it’s a symptom of his condition. He gets frustrated, hyper and full of anxiety when he doesn’t get it right. This is where yoga comes into play again. Yoga is known to calm the mind and body. It became part of our routine to practice poses, to breathe calmly and to sit or lie in silence.

As he grows and becomes more agile, he is getting interested in other activities. He’s now moving from swimming to gymnastics. He likes tennis and baseball too. He is learning how to take turns and how to be part of a team. He is given challenges and obstacles to overcome and new sets of skills to perfect. And when he accomplishes something, he gains self assurance and confidence. He has even been known to coach his little brother on how to hold a bat, and has been seen cheering on and congratulating others on a good job. This is an amazing thing for us to see as parents of an autistic child.

And when the activity seems too large to accomplish, or the skill too complex to learn, and the self doubt and anxiety set in, we take him out of the situation, remind him to breathe and to close his eyes and calm himself and use the skills we learned from yoga. Yoga gives Enzo more than a workout. It gives him self confidence. It gives him a sense of accomplishment. It is a way to rid himself of his nervous energy, and, when he gets anxiety, we use a different form of activity to reset his mind and calm his heart. And, when he feels he’s not able to do it right, and gets frustrated and mad at himself, he needs to breathe, calm down and reset. After all, don’t we all?

Enzo is now 7 and he is a well-balanced, smart, happy and social kid. He is doing well academically and has very few meltdowns. What we’ve learned on this journey is that practice, patience and love will solve almost every problem. Through the combination of yoga, sports, therapies, diet and coping strategies, Enzo is enjoying a rich and happy childhood.

Robin Gualtieri has been studying and practicing yoga since 1998. Over the years she has studied a variety of styles. During July of 2006 she completed a 200-hour teacher training program at Yoga on Main in Philadelphia. There she studied under esteemed teachers Shiva Das, Ed Zadlo and David Newman. At Yoga on Main she was taught the Inner Fire Yoga method, a balanced practice of asana, mantra, mediation, yoga history and philosophy. In January 2006 she completed 15 hours of Child Light Yoga teacher training. Robin, a mother of two boys, practiced yoga during both pregnancies and has been teaching prenatal yoga for over 5 years. “Practicing yoga was essential during my pregnancy and labor. Yoga helped me be more comfortable and confident during pregnancy and delivery. A consistent yoga practice has also made me a more patient parent.” Robin offers private yoga sessions for adults and children at an affordable price. Please email Robin at robingualtieri@yahoo.com for more information about yoga offerings in the Lehigh Valley and private sessions.