Teaching Evan: Yoga, Autism,
and Almond Butter
The first time I met Evan, he took my hand in his smaller, paler hand, wrapped his fingers around mine, and placed both of our hands on my heart. He looked up at me, eyes wide and hair half-wet from a recent bath, and said simply, “Hug?”
Tentatively, I wrapped my arms around him, suddenly aware of the shape of his shoulder blades through his shirt and we stood, embracing in the doorway, while his mother looked on.
For a full minute, there was only his tiny heartbeat against my stomach, his wild blonde curls obscuring any view of his face, and the weight of his delicate, white arms around my waist. The hug resolved when he pushed my hips away, pulled me down to his eye level, and slowly reached an inquisitive finger towards my eye. First, there was the pressure of his finger on my lashes, and my lashes moving as he ran his finger over them. Then there was his cool palm on my cheek, and his fingertips pinching my lower lip, exploring the contours of my face – the features I use to communicate.
I was there to teach yoga to this nine-year-old boy and, having had no idea what to expect, I had devised a full yoga routine in preparation for the session. It was immediately clear that I would need a new plan.
That day, we sang together, played his drum set, and walked like elephants. At the end of the session, his mother and I planned to meet again the next week. I was humbled, stumped, excited, and already in love with the kid.
I’ve been teaching yoga to children with autism for three years. Evan is just one of the children I’ve worked with. It would be easy to write about how yoga “let me in” to the worlds of the children I work with – about how, through yoga, we had moments that transcended language and defied diagnoses. To be fair, this has happened. But this is a story about about time, patience, and recalibration. It’s about committing to a practice of giving up control and laying down expectations in order to be present for what is.
When asked what a yoga session is like, I often say, “It depends.” There is the plan, and then there is what actually happens. I have learned, over time, to accept this. Some days, the child does yoga poses. Other days, I get pinched, poked, scratched, bitten, drooled on, pushed, headbutted, and sometimes kicked. I don’t take these “outbursts” personally. Children with autism often act out because it is the best tool they have to express themselves. Many kids with autism have irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, other gastrointestinal issues, or sensory modulation issues that leave them feeling extremely uncomfortable. A child with autism might see each flicker of a fluorescent light individually; a jackhammer ten blocks away could sound like it was inside the child’s ear; a soft touch on the arm could feel like being scraped with sandpaper.
Any combination of these things can be happening for one of the kids I work with at any time, so an “outburst” is actually just information about how the child is feeling. A pinch could mean, “stop, I don’t like how that feels;” a bite could mean “I have to go to the bathroom, get me out of this twist;” and a tantrum could mean “I’m overwhelmed, I need a break.” My job is to notice, to be flexible, and to do the best I can to help the child feel more comfortable in his or her body.
I love what I do, but it’s not always easy. There are the times when I doubt I’m making a difference at all, times when I wonder if I’ll have the patience to stay present, and times when I simply don’t feel like being drooled on. But there are moments of joy, like when Shawn, who initially thought yoga was “for losers,” asked if we could do an extra session because he had a test the next day and the yoga helped him stay calm. Or today, when Jackson, after a year and a half of needing to be guided into poses, surprised me by doing three in a row with no prompting at all.
And then there are the truly special times, the ones that in one moment capture the entire spectrum of this work, like when Evan – who speaks only occasionally and, when he does, in one-to-three-word commands – pulled my forehead to his and stared into my eyes.
After what felt like ten minutes he whispered, “I know you. — And you know me.”
Later, after getting his permission, I told his mother what happened.
She cried. Then I cried. Evan, totally uninterested, balled his fists and demanded, “Nut butter!”