COCONUT CREEK—Autistic children who have trouble relaxing are finding peace through "pretzel" and "superman."
Theseyoga poses and a dozen others, performed in sequence each day at Coconut Creek Elementary School, offer students in the school's autism classes a way to calm themselves when the stresses of life — such as loud noises in the cafeteria¸ bright classroom lights or a skinned knee — agitate them.
"It helps me when my back hurts," said River Zartler, 10. "We lay down on our mats and close our eyes."
Louise Goldberg, a yoga teacher and one of the founders of the program, known as S.T.O.P. and Relax, hopes upcoming academic studies prove her theory that special-needs students learn self-pacifying techniques through yoga that they can translate into their lives outside school.
In the meantime, she will show parents and teachers in workshops later this month how to teach the poses to developmentally disabled kids.
"Children with autism don't like change. They like predictability," said Goldberg, a former reading teacher at South Florida State Hospital who teaches yoga at the Yoga Center of Deerfield Beach. "We have a ritual beginning and ending, which gives them comfort. We offer challenges gradually. The postures make them feel better and teach them to redirect their energy before an [emotional] explosion."
Autism encompasses an assortment of neurological disorders that may include repetitive behaviors;, difficulties with social interaction, language and speech delays; and inability to use the imagination.
About one in 110 children is diagnosed with the disorder. The number of diagnoses each year grows by more than 10 percent. The reasons are unclear, but may be a combination of genetics, environmental influences and increased awareness among parents and medical practitioners, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy group.
Traditional interventions include intensive behavioral and speech therapies. But some parents, frustrated with their children's progress, seek alternatives to conventional treatments.
Several research papers and books have explored the effects of yoga on the autistic, but there are few scientific studies. A Thomas Jefferson University study, currently under way, is investigating whether adults who are irritated by light, sound, movement and touch can decrease their sensitivities through yoga classes.
Yoga is touted as a therapy for an assortment of illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, asthma and heart disease. Its popularity continues to grow: A 2008 study by Yoga Journal found that 15.8 million Americans, or about 7 percent of the population, say they practice yoga. Another 8 percent said they are interested in trying yoga, triple the amount from the previous study.
Parent Jaclyn Merens brings her autistic son Daniel, 26, to a weekly yoga class organized by a group of parents who take the class alsong with their adult special-needs children. They meet in a neighborhood clubhouse in Boca Raton.
"He gets a sense of pride that he can do it," said Merens, South Florida director of Autism Speaks. "It has a calming influence on him."
Cheryl Loomis, a special-needs teacher at Coconut Creek Elementary, believes the children take this yoga calm into the world outside the classroom. She praised the images the S.T.O.P. and Relax program, which is in 25 Broward schools, creates in the children's minds.
As the children lie on their mats with the classroom lights turned low, an audiotape intones: "It's time to float on a cloud. Pretend the mat is a big, light, fluffy cloud. Feel your body sinking into your cloud, which is perfect for your body."
Loomis also likes the visual clues the program offers, such as the pictures of poses the children can refer to as the class proceeds.
"Everyone tells them to relax, but this teaches them what it means to relax," she said. "This shows them that relaxing is safe and comfortable."
Lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536.