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Why Raising a Child With Autism Is a Lot Like Practicing Yoga

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I like to use exercise as an outlet for some of my daily stress. While most days, I just have time to push my little guy’s stroller around the neighborhood, I love to practice yoga. Of course, I don’t get to practice it nearly as much as I’d like to, but I always feel great after I get the chance. Sometimes I take classes, and sometimes I get to take 10 minutes (in a row!) to get quiet, stretch out in the living room and even try a new pose or push myself further in another one. It recently hit me — mid pigeon pose — that raising a child with autism is a lot like practicing yoga.

First of all, no one masters yoga, that’s why it’s called a practice. That’s how I feel about motherhood in general — not just parenting a child with a disability. Sometimes I need to take pressure off myself — the pressure that I should have this down by now and be able to cope better during the difficult hours or days or weeks. My daughter is 10, so I have been at this autism parenting thing for a while, and it’s a constant practice for me.

I believe yoga and autism parenting both require four things: flexibility, strength, the willingness to modify and the understanding that everything is temporary.

Most people who practice yoga don’t start out standing on their heads or even being able to touch their toes in a forward fold. It takes time and patience. Flexibility isn’t something that comes naturally to us all. Little by little, with practice, flexibility can grow.

No one is expected to understand everything about autism or even about our own children. We bend and flex and change and grow alongside our children. I’ve had countless beautiful and special moments raising my daughter, though it’s been hard and painful at times. It’s hard to see my child deal with challenges; it’s hard to see other families not experience all that my family has had to gone through; it’s hard not knowing how to help my child or make her feel better in her own skin. It’s hard. There’s not much room for weakness.

On my yoga mat, I’m always reminded of my strength. Feeling like I can hold a pose past what I thought was my “edge” or balancing while twisted up and on only one foot proves to me that I’m stronger than I think I am. When I feel strong, I’m always more patient because I believe in myself and in the process. Taking the strength I feel while I’m on my mat out into my world off the mat is always my focus in yoga; that’s always the goal for me.

Being willing to modify is the name of the game in raising a child on the spectrum. You can be all set and ready to walk out the door to an event you’d been planning on for weeks, and boom, a meltdown occurs. Change in plans! Raising a child with autism requires a willingness to modify, to go with the flow and to be OK with expectations not being met. Modification is not failure, it’s simply an adjustment and adaptation. A headstand using the wall for support or a headstand in the middle of the room is still called a headstand.

And finally, yoga and autism parenting both require the understanding that everything is temporary. Meltdowns are temporary. Behavioral flare-ups are temporary. Periods of plateau in progress are temporary. Sometimes even regressions are temporary. I can move my body into some very strange positions and be just fine and comfortable — even if for just 10 seconds! — while others are incredibly unbearable and uncomfortable. Just when my body starts screaming to get out of a pose, it’s time to change positions. It’s been invaluable for me to learn that if something doesn’t feel right, it’s a temporary feeling. I don’t have to be stuck there. I can modify my position, my attitude, my behavior. Of course, just because I know I can doesn’t mean it comes easily. It’s a practice.

All these things — flexibility, strength, willingness to modify and knowing it’s all temporary — increase over time. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Practicing yoga and raising a child on the spectrum take perseverance. We fall eight times and get up nine. We keep practicing over and over and over, and sometimes, if we never give up, we can totally nail a pose!

Dani Gillman the mighty.1-001

A version of this post originally appeared on Birdhouse for Autism.

Originally published: August 17, 2015
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