By Dr. Mary Chang.
“The lights go out and I can’t be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
Have brought me down upon my knees…
Am I a part of the cure?
Or am I part of the disease?”
~ Clocks by Coldplay
When anyone hears a diagnosis of any kind, they have two options:
1. Be a part of the CURE or
2. Be a part of the disease
After my son was formally diagnosed by Western medicine with Autism in the early 90’s, the lights literally went out when I realized I that couldn’t be saved from this reality. The tides I had tried to swim against were eventually given a label: Autism.
As his mom, I knew something was up since the minute he was born. It’s just that with the actual diagnosis, I was brought to my knees with the enormity of deciding which option to choose: CURE or disease. You may be saying to yourself, “Well, that is a simple choice! Choose the CURE!”
That’s not as simple as it may seem.
I have seen so many parents choose to be part of the disease. Parents of individuals on the Autism Spectrum can become so over-identified with the symptoms they’re exposed to 24/7 that they begin to exhibit Autistic-like symptoms themselves. For example, basic social interaction can be difficult for parents of individuals on the infamous Autism Spectrum.
Symptoms that parents may exhibit can include:
Unusual or inappropriate body language, gestures, and facial expressions e.g. flipping off people who ask why your child is chewing on the rubber mat on the floor in the freezer section at the grocery store.
Lack of interest in other people or in sharing interests or achievements e.g. losing interest in making even the slightest effort to share anything especially when there is all that fear of judgment involved sharing your experiences from the land of The Great Autismo.
Unlikely to approach others or to pursue social interaction; comes across as aloof and detached; prefers to be alone e.g. retreating to one’s boudoir with comfort food/alcohol/drug/lover of choice to soothe the savage beast after a long, hard day.
Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, reactions, and nonverbal cues e.g. it is hard to understand others when you can’t understand what your own child’s feelings, reactions, and nonverbal cues mean.
Resistance to being touched e.g. if anyone knows what fecal smearing is, they would understand that this was not fudge on my t-shirt.
Difficulty or failure to make friends with other parents the same age e.g. there simply is not enough time or energy to make or maintain friendships with all the Betty Crockers and Martha Stewarts raising their children in my neighborhood.
How do I know about these nuances? Take a wild guess.
In an attempt to shake off my own symptoms and get back into control, I literally carted my son off to every Expert on Autism, which is in itself an oxymoron. If anyone tells you they are an Expert on Autism, run!
There is no such thing. I found out the hard way that if the Experts on Autism can’t prescribe a pharmaceutical or surgically excise the culprit, they wash their hands and they run…far away.
“Take him home and love him as he is,” was the admonishment I received from one of these Experts. Ah, yeah, I did love my son. I just needed help raising someone who was not from my planet. Help is an elusive commodity in the Western mind especially when it comes to Autism.
Then I turned to the Experts in Education only to find out they had no clue about the cure either but they sure could give my son a label and put him a classroom that had no way out.
I found myself sitting in meetings surrounded by so-called Experts in Education who delighted in reading the results to me off their voluminous evaluations. Yep, lovely monotone discords ad nauseum.
At one infamous meeting, I turned to the Expert in Education who was leading this tirade against my son only to say out loud what I was thinking, “Blah, blah, blah…so what the fuck are you talking about anyway?” He looked at me dumbfounded, not because I used the F word but because he had no answer for me.
All this searching for a CURE led to my realization that I had to become the CURE; I could no longer focus on the problem i.e. The Great Autismo. I had to focus on the solution i.e. CURE myself and thus, CURE my son.
“Having mastered the body through the Yogic teachings so that it becomes a fit habitation for the soul; having the senses, emotions, and mind under control, the wise person discards the worn out sheaths of desire, fear, and confusion and passes into the state of enlightenment and freedom.” ~ Bhagavad Gita
I finally discarded all the worn out sheaths I had been hiding behind. This was a desperate act of survival…nothing less.
After all, when all hope in finding an expert to help me was gone, I was on my own. I had to create space each and every day through my yoga practice where I struggled to grab hold of that wheel again.
What Yoga taught me was to let go of my desire, fear, and confusion. My daily yoga practice forced me to get back into the driver’s seat, white knuckle the wheel, and become the CURE, the solution for my son instead of the problem. What better way to give this a kick in the proverbial ass than to take back control?
And that is what I did…kicked ass. Some of you may be shocked, thinking that yoginis are all Kumbaya and Namaste. Not so, we represent a force to be reckoned with. Especially when it comes to our loved ones.
In the beginning, I would slowly unfurl my mat and lay in savasana mourning the death of the son I’d originally dreamed of and feeling sorry for myself.
How apropos that the corpse pose is what helped me let go of desire, fear, and confusion. Eventually, I discarded all the worn-out sheaths that I mistakenly believed hid me from the Autism. Every inhale filled me with hope while every exhale detoxed my spirit.
I began to create space each and every day through my yoga practice where I struggled to let go what I wanted and embraced what I needed. My daily yoga practice forced me to become the CURE, the solution for my son instead of his problem.
The incredible thing is that my son started taking an interest in my daily yoga practice.
Since he required constant supervision, I practiced my yoga asana (poses) with him in the general vicinity of my mat. It didn’t take long for him to start trying to move in the same ways that I was moving.
What was interesting is the way he thought he was mirroring me. I recognized that he had no clue how to spatially position his body. In the beginning, I would jump up and try to physically move him, grabbing wrists and ankles, moving him into the asana I thought he was trying to imitate. He would immediately pull away, cry, and run from the room.
It slowly dawned on me that even though his idea of moving in yoga in no way resembled my idea, he had a desire. He wanted to try.
Now, all I had to do was learn to touch him in a loving way, speak softly, and accept his approximations with love. I had to teach him yoga on his terms, not my own. It took time and patience as I innately determined when to push him and when to back off.
After several months of working with him every day, he began to integrate his interpretation of yoga into daily life. Instead of flapping his hands and making dolphin sounds when waiting in line at the grocery store, he would put his palms together in front of his heart and say, “Om.” I was amazed!
When he would begin to escalate with anxiety for some unknown reason, I could tell him to breathe and he would breathe until he calmed down. It was a metamorphosis that required no drugs, no special diet, and best of all, no Experts.
I was helping him help himself through yoga. The transformation from outside influence to inner control is empowering for any individual, but especially for one on the Autism Spectrum. Suddenly, they realize they are the solution, they are the CURE. And it’s on their own terms.
To this day, my son engages in a daily yoga practice that includes asana, mantra, mudra, pranayama techniques, and guided meditations.
Best of all, I observe him integrating his yoga wisdom into each moment of the day. After all, yoga is all about personal interpretation and offers him freedom from comparison and judgment. In yoga, he can celebrate the way his body moves into poses and especially how he feels when he does. Although he is classified as nonverbal, will say the mantras, the seed sounds of yoga, throughout his day.
Friends and family see this as an opportunity to get him talking and will try to get him to deviate to say a word such as ice cream. Much to their dismay, he will have none of that. Why speak words when you can speak mantras?
The unexpected bonus of working with my son through yoga is that he is now compliant without physical force, loud voices, or frustration. He will do what I ask of him. Happily! He is calm, clear-minded, and more balanced as a result of his yoga practice.
When other people see my son, they typically do not see him as being an individual on the Autism Spectrum. If they hang around for a while, they begin to notice that there is something different about him, but they just can’t put their finger on it. If a conversation is initiated, they will ask what he is saying (mantra) or remark about the confident way he moves spatially or how pleasant his personality is.
This is always a good time to mention how beneficial yoga has been in our lives, especially if I choose to share that he had been self-abusive, punching himself so hard in the head the he once needed a helmet or that fecal smearing occurred as often as he could sneak a hand down the back of his pants or that he didn’t walk until he was almost five years old.
The other times that I bring up yoga and autism is when someone reaches out to me for help.
Typically, they are directly involved with an individual on the Autism Spectrum as a parent or a friend or a relative. I will listen as they rattle off the list of things that have been tried along with all the heartache and disappointment, especially when none of it has worked.
It is easy to introduce yoga at that time since it is a non-threatening approach with no adverse side effects. Even when yoga does not radically help an individual on the Autism Spectrum, it helps their caregiver deal with their stress. And when the caregiver is happy, the individual is happy, too.
And that, my dear friends, is how I came to use yoga with individuals on the Autism Spectrum along with their families. People like me who have made the bold choice to become the CURE.
In the early 1970’s, Mary first encountered individuals on the Autism Spectrum as a student at the University of Wisconsin. In 1990, the birth of her youngest son provided an opportunity to experience Autism up close and personal as his mother; he was formally diagnosed by the Western medical community with classic, severe autism in the early 1990’s. Through much exploration, she found yoga to be a strong tool for people on the Autistic Spectrum and founded Yoga and Autism to help others with the strategy that she finds most helpful in the long run. You can visit her blog and join her on Facebook. She extends an offer to anyone currently residing in the Land of The Great Autismo who wants to kick some serious ass.
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