Life in Alignment: The Healing Power of Yoga

Scott Anderson's Spectrum Yoga Therapy is a miracle for those diagnosed with autism

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Today, one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The average family spends thousands of dollars a year just managing the diagnosis, and some quote the divorce rate among families living with autism as high as eighty to ninety percent. It’s a complex, multifaceted conversation, but one thing is very clear: the impact of autism on a family is enormous—and expensive.

When Scott Anderson started using yoga therapy to work one-on-one with individuals on the autism spectrum, word quickly got out—but while the average person has a hard time affording $90-an-hour private yoga, it’s a near impossibility for families financially stressed by autism.

“Our yearly budget for Franke’s autism is $30,000 a year,” says Susan Wallitsch of Mount Horeb, a cognitive behavioral therapist. “Basically every year that Franke has had autism, we have paid private college tuition just to manage his disability.” Wallitsch’s son, who is nonverbal, was diagnosed at the age of seventeen months. He’s now nineteen.

One of the hallmarks of Franke’s particular anxiety-based diagnosis has been angry, crippling panic attacks as well as epilepsy. Six-foot-four-inch Franke would start to jump and scream, bite himself until he bled, and lash out at anyone who got too close. The attacks lasted twenty minutes on average, and the Wallitsch family had tried all manner of therapy, including restraint, and numerous medications—all of which made Franke’s attacks worse. But when Franke started working with Anderson, things started to get a little better.

“One day he was building up to one of these panic attacks at school, and then suddenly he started to do his yoga breathing,” says Wallitsch. “He calmed himself right down, and the attack was avoided. That he could bring himself down from one of these was a very, very big deal.”

With Wallitsch’s help, Anderson developed the Spectrum Yoga Therapy protocol in a group setting and made it financially accessible to all families. Students pay what they need to pay—some as little as $1 per month—and the protocol training is free to caregivers. More than one hundred Madison-area residents have been trained to volunteer their time working with Spectrum Yoga students weekly, and the program, recently incorporated as a nonprofit, has extended to Eau Claire, a fledgling program in Dubuque, and a planned program in the Milwaukee suburbs. The Madison program will expand this fall, offering classes at Mound Street Yoga Center on Monday afternoons and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds on Thursday mornings.

Anderson’s ultimate goal is to have volunteers spread Spectrum Yoga Therapy to every community in the country. It’s certainly made a difference in one family’s life beyond managing the attacks.

“This has given us a happiness in our relationship that we didn’t have before,” says Wallitsch. “It’s not that we didn’t love Franke before, because of course we love him very, very much. But this gives us a way to express the depth of our feeling for him. It gives us a way to communicate with one another not using words, but using this very calm, very sweet, very engaged way of being together.”

Spectrum Yoga Therapy also caught the eye of world-renowned UW neuroscientist Richie Davidson, a personal friend and yoga student of Anderson’s. At first the two men bonded over the melding of science and spirituality, then quickly over their shared belief in service and compassion. Davidson has also conducted autism research for years and was eager to see Spectrum Yoga Therapy in action.

“It got quiet in the class and five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen,” Anderson recalls. “I looked over at Richie and he was just grinning ear to ear.”

This summer Davidson and Anderson began empirically evaluating the effects of the Spectrum Yoga Therapy protocol on the autonomic nervous system, a research project conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

“Scott is by far the very best yoga teacher I’ve ever had,” says Davidson. “I think he is a wonderful person who is really grounded, and he is someone who is trying to integrate his extraordinary wisdom of the body with his interest in the mind to help people achieve a kind of inner peace and increased balance in life.

“I just think Scott is a real gem in our community,” he adds. “What he offers is just tremendously valuable, and the people of Madison are so fortunate to have him in our midst."

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"Don't Take Away My Yoga"

Roy Bedward is a 32-year old Madisonian on the autism spectrum, and one of Scott Anderson’s Spectrum Yoga Therapy students. He wanted to speak out about SYT, but he is non-verbal so he asked to be interviewed through e-mail.

MM: When did you first start SYT?
RB: I have been involved with yoga for the last couple of years. Yoga helps my body and its movement. I need it to gain control of my body.

MM: How does SYT fit into the way you manage your diagnosis?
RB: I have and need other therapies. It relaxes my muscles and calms my mind. I enjoy yoga.

MM: How often do you use SYT?
RB:
I practice weekly for I need the support of instructors.

MM: Do you live alone?
RB:
I live with a roommate and have residential supports.

MM: Do they help you practice SYT?
RB:
Not all the time.

MM: Can you imagine your life today without SYT?
RB:
No, don’t take away my yoga.

– MGS

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.

Read our October 2010 health feature on resources for special-needs kids here

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