Review: Yoga and mindfulness for youth with autism spectrum disorder: review of the current evidence

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Abstract

Background

Yoga and mindfulness-based programs are becoming increasingly popular as a supplemental intervention for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Increasing numbers of children, parents, and schools are participating in programs around the country with an enthusiasm that far exceeds the research support for their efficacy. Therapies that are safe but not effective may not cause immediate harm. Nevertheless, the misappropriation of limited time and financial resources may result in missed opportunities. The need for clearly defined, evidence-based therapies for youth with ASD is essential.

Method

Electronic databases were searched for peer-reviewed intervention research studies using the key words autistic or autism in combination with yoga, mindfulness, or meditation. Eight studies met inclusion criteria.

Results

The findings are described in this critical review of eight empirical research studies that implemented yoga and mindfulness-based interventions for children with ASD. Although few studies reported improvements in core symptoms of ASD, preliminary findings suggest that yoga and mindfulness-based interventions are feasible and may improve a variety of prosocial behaviors, including communication and imitative behaviors; increased tolerance of sitting and of adult proximity; self-control; quality of life; and social responsiveness, social communication, social cognition, preoccupations, and social motivation. Reductions in aggressive behaviors, irritability, lethargy, social withdrawal, and noncompliance were also reported.

Conclusions

Based on the available literature, the empirical evidence to support the efficacy of yoga and mindfulness-based interventions for children and adolescents with ASD is inconclusive. The current body of research has significant limitations, including small sample sizes, no fidelity measures, and no control groups. Each of the eight studies, however, reported some positive effects on social, emotional, or behavioral metrics. These early results are promising and sufficient to warrant support for further research.

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