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Yoga for Kids with Special Needs

Alex Roeder does an exercise called ‘The Snake’ during a recent Yoga for the Special Child class.

September 2002 – When she heard about the new class called Yoga for the Special Child, Sylvia Roeder knew right away that she wanted to enroll her two-and-a-half-year-old son. Born with Down syndrome, Alexander Roeder had erratic behavior and virtually no attention span - and his mother welcomed Memorial Healthcare System's innovative therapy idea.

"I read a book about it and thought it was very interesting," Roeder says. "In just six weeks of yoga classes, Alexander was paying more attention to everything. He used to move around a lot, throw things. Now, he is quieter."

"Physically, he walks more securely," Roeder says. "And he even runs better than before he started the class. But I feel happiest because his mental focus is better, and that's my real interest."

An Old Practice, a New Idea

Yoga's roots go back about 5,000 years. The idea of applying the ancient discipline to special-needs children is relatively new, but logical.

"I can't think of a child who would not benefit from yoga," says instructor Elissa Karl, MSPT, a physical therapist in the Outpatient Rehabilitation Center at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. "Yoga is something that anyone can do, at any age. So why shouldn't special-needs children benefit from it, too?"

Since March, Karl has taught two weekly Yoga for the Special Child classes at Memorial Regional Hospital. Before that, she knew of no yoga class in the area that focused on children with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism, as well as attention deficit disorders.

Karl first heard about the idea at a meeting of a professional therapy organization. The featured speaker talked about Sonia Sumar, a Chicago woman who offered certification in a yoga program for special-needs children. Sumar had developed the course during the early 1970s, after practicing yoga with her child, who has Down syndrome. Amazed at the difference yoga made in her daughter's development, Sumar conducted research, started to teach other children with special needs and wrote the book, "Yoga for the Special Child."

The concept made perfect sense to Karl, a longtime yoga devotee. Soon after earning her certification last summer, she began working with Alexander Roeder.

"He had a lot of difficulties concentrating," Karl says. "But in the past few months, he has been able to focus and finish sessions without getting lost, and he is able to follow instruction better. I am amazed at his increased attention span."

Elissa Karl, a physical therapist for Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, teaches Alex Roeder a new yoga position during class.

The Benefits

In addition to teaching focus, concentration and relaxation techniques, yoga encourages physical activity through stretching and balancing. According to Sumar's statistics, special-needs children who take yoga are able to sit up, crawl and walk months earlier than their non-yoga-practicing counterparts.

"These kids will be mainstreamed in school," Karl says. "It's important for them to keep up with their peers. Every parent wants their child to learn to sit up, walk and play like other children do. It is important for the child's socialization skills and self-esteem."

Eventually, Karl would like to have classes meet twice a week and divide participants by ability level.

"The challenge with any group of young children is to keep their attention and make exercise fun," Karl says. "Parents might think, 'He's 2. How is yoga going to benefit a 2-year-old?' But it does. It's really rewarding for me to see the changes in their behavior and especially to hear reports that they're doing the exercises on their own at home."

The results have exceeded Mrs. Roeder's expectations.

"The first two weeks, Alexander moved around in class a lot and it didn't seem to help," she says. "Now he sits down with Elissa, and he knows we start with breathing exercises. Sometimes, he'll run away but he always comes back and starts to do the exercises again. In every class he does more than he did the class before."

Yoga for the Special Child, for ages 1-5, meets at 4:30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays and a class for ages 6 years and older meets at 5:15pm on Tuesdays at the Outpatient Rehabilitation Center at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, 300 Hollywood Way, Suite 300, Hollywood. The $50 enrollment fee includes a private evaluation session and each class costs $15. Classes are limited to six participants. Participants must have clearance from a doctor. (Forms are available at the Outpatient Rehab-ilitation Center at the hospital). An adult must accompany participants. For more information, please call (954) 985-5865.