Make It Inclusive: Tips for Teaching to Neurodivergent Students in Your Group Classes

By Amanda Burks for Yoga Medicine®.

Whether you know it or not, you have probably taught yoga to neurodivergent people. Neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. [1] Some neurodivergent people have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or other challenges. For example, ASD, is largely underdiagnosed and especially so in females. [2] Even so, it estimated that at least 5 million adults in the United States have ASD, and an even larger part of the population is neurodivergent. [3] So chances are, you know neurodivergent people and some may have taken your yoga classes.

Given the broad spectrum of challenges, coupled with the common practice called “masking”—where neurodivergent individuals learn to mimic neurotypical behavior in social situations—you may not know that some of your students are neurodivergent—and that’s ok. Remember, as teachers it is not our job to diagnose, but rather to meet each student where they are and provide a welcoming environment where everyone can practice yoga.

Research suggests that a regular yoga practice can be beneficial for neurodivergent people, many of whom may struggle with balance and proprioception. And because a group yoga class is a form of parallel play—where we practice among others, but are not required to converse—it can be an ideal opportunity for neurodivergent practitioners to develop a sense of community, without the pressure of exhaustive small talk.

However, many of neurodivergent practitioners struggle with group classes and instead may seek private instruction, take classes online, or abandon their practice altogether. All three of these alternatives leave neurodivergent students without the critical social connection and community of a group yoga class.

Teaching Yoga to Neurodivergent Practitioners

I am grateful to have neurodivergent family members who have taught me endless lessons about compassion, acceptance, and empowerment. In addition to vinyasa flow classes, I teach yoga for a nonprofit that supports disabled adults, including many who are neurodivergent. These experiences have greatly influenced how I teach all of my classes.

As yoga teachers, we’re generally a compassionate bunch. But I’ve heard many yoga teachers say that while they would like to be more inclusive, often they are not sure where to begin. We cannot possibly accommodate every single person in every situation. But thankfully, there are simple steps that teachers can implement to foster a more inclusive environment for neurodivergent practitioners.

1. Design a Predictable Practice

Following a routine can be very helpful for neurodivergent students. As teachers, we can make our classes predictable on both a macro level by following a general class structure, and on a micro level through sequencing.

Many teachers already have a formula used to sequence classes. Maybe it begins with some pranayama in stillness, followed by a gentle warm up, before a flow, and then a cool down on the floor before Savasana. Regardless of your class structure, be consistent so students will know generally what to expect and when. While the breathing techniques and poses may change, students will have a sense of when they are moving and when they are still. This predictable structure can be very calming for some.

And when it comes to sequencing a class, you need not repeat the exact same flow each time; in fact, many neurodivergent practitioners will find nuances interesting and stimulating in a positive way.

Ladder flows can be especially helpful to introduce novel movement patterns with a degree of predictability. In a ladder flow, the sequence is built gradually by adding a pose or two as the flow is repeated numerous times. Doing so creates familiarity for students, even if the overall sequence is novel, as a result of the repetition. Not only do students know what to expect, but they often feel empowered by learning new motor patterns.

And if your class schedule changes in any way—with a sub or a cancellation—make sure to give your students advance notice when possible. While all of your students will appreciate this courtesy, it is particularly important for neurodivergent practitioners who may struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar instructor.

2. Create a Sensory-Friendly Space

Keep in mind that many neurodivergent practitioners may have heightened nervous systems and/or a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Individuals with SPD have intense reactions in their nervous systems in response to, with the processing of, and/or with the organization of sensory information that can include sound, smell, light, touch, and/or taste. [4] While you may not know of each of your students’ particular sensitivities, there are some easy steps you can take to create a sensory-friendly space in your studio.

  • Sound: If you chose to play music during your class, keep the volume low enough so that the students who wish to ignore it can do so. Remember that the students (especially oratory learners) are listening closely to your cues and any background noise can be distracting. Language reception requires a tremendous amount of energy, especially for neurodivergent practitioners with speech processing challenges. Simply listening to someone talk can be exhausting for some. Since you are speaking to cue the poses, you may want to stick to purely instrumental music to avoid lyrics that will compete with your instructions.
  • Smell: Avoid burning incense or diffusing essential oils in the studio. Strong scents can be jarring, especially when the breath is challenged. Also consider skipping perfume, cologne, or scented lotion if you intend to walk around throughout the practice.
  • Light: Opt for daylight over harsh overhead light if possible. Light window shades are preferable for allowing in some natural light, without inviting the distractions of any outside traffic. If artificial light is necessary, consider using a dimmer switch.
  • Touch: If a student wants to practice in socks, accept it without comment or judgment. They could be attempting to avoid the sticky feel of the mat. Some may also want to bring their own props or wear non-traditional yoga clothes. Remember, this is their practice and they are working to make it more comfortable for themselves. And as always, obtain consent before performing any hands-on assists.
3. Embrace a Variety of Learning Styles

We all learn in different ways. Neurotypical people may have a preference—even a strong preference—for a particular learning style. But neurodivergent people, may have only one specific way in which they can learn. Some are visual learners and benefit from watching a precise demo. Others are oratory learners, hanging on every word the teacher shares. Some practitioners require tactile feedback to learn a movement. And many students learn through a mix of these styles. An acceptance and appreciation of these differences should inform our teaching, and perhaps it is something that you have already considered especially if you have taught virtual classes.

If you’ve taught yoga virtually, you may already understand the importance of teaching for different learning styles. Many of us (myself included) had to hone our demo and cueing skills when we transitioned to teaching virtually. It certainly took me some time to adjust to speaking and flowing, but eventually I learned to slow things down a bit and make my language more precise and efficient. Perhaps now you can take what you’ve learned from teaching virtually and bring your refined demo and cues skills to your in-person classes with an eye toward embracing learning differences.

While some kinesthetic learners appreciate hands-on assists, there are many other ways to encourage tactile feedback by getting creating with props. Traditional yoga props like blocks, straps, blankets, and bolsters can be used in a variety of ways to not only support students, but to provide neural feedback. Often this involves using the prop as a source of external load (e.g. balancing a block on your back in table pose) or creating an uneven surface to balance on (e.g. standing on a rolled blanket or bolster). One of my favorite ways to provide tactile feedback is by creatively using resistance band arrangements in such a way that you can mimic the benefits of a hands-on assist in a variety of poses.

4. Keep It Light

Set a light-hearted tone for your class. If you forget a pose, mistakenly cue the right foot when you meant the left, or shake or stumble while balancing, simply smile, laugh, and move on. Doing so gives your students license to make mistakes as well, and encourages them to let go of the pull toward perfection that can be especially strong for neurodivergent practitioners. You can also share your limitations by casually acknowledging your “trickier side” in any given pose.

Instruct your students to be less rigid about the aesthetics of each pose by reminding them to pay attention to the sensations they feel, instead of trying to replicate a certain shape. Doing so will show your students that perfection is neither expected, nor required for a beneficial yoga practice.

Application & Takeaways

It’s important to note that these tips are intended to be used in group classes for neurodivergent individuals that require a minimal amount of accommodation. While many of these recommendations may be enjoyed by neurotypical students as well, it is important to note that for neurodivergent practitioners, these modifications may be a necessity, without which they cannot participate. Whereas for the neurotypical student, they may simply be pleasing or preferred.

Remember, neurodiversity is the idea that our brains can and do work differently from person to person. As a yoga teacher, you already have a deep appreciation for the physical nuances that exist from person to person. You can apply that same understanding to neurological differences as well. Through your yoga classes, you can welcome neurodivergent students to enjoy all the benefits that your yoga community can offer.

References:

  1. Armstrong, Thomas. The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain (1st Da Capo Press paperback ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Lifelong. ISBN 9780738215242. OCLC 760085215.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5925757/;
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2661453/
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/features/adults-living-with-autism-spectrum-disorder.html#:~:text=An%20estimated%205%2C437%2C988%20(2.21%25),high%20of%202.42%25%20in%20Massachusetts
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759332/#:~:text=Sensory%20processing%20disorder%20is%20a,daily%20life%20routines%20and%20activities

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