Behavioral specialist incorporates yoga into her practice

Ilana Slavin-Hughes, 34, of Wantagh, a behavioral specialist

Ilana Slavin-Hughes, 34, of Wantagh, a behavioral specialist for special-needs children, leads students in a yoga pose in a class for autistic children. Slavin-Hughes is also Pop.Earth's director of holistic services. (Jan. 16, 2014) (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

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Long before Debbie Stone was publicly promoting yoga for autistic children, she saw the benefits for her own son, Dylan, thanks to Ilana Slavin-Hughes.

Slavin-Hughes, 34, of Wantagh, is a behavioral specialist for special-needs children and has worked with Dylan for three years in the Stone home. But she is also a yoga instructor and has incorporated the practice into her work. After seeing Dylan's improvement, Stone asked Slavin-Hughes to become involved with Pop.Earth, and she is now the organization's director of holistic services.

Slavin-Hughes has found that holistic practices can ease some of the hand-slapping and self-stimulatory behavior that autistic youths struggle with.

"Their nervous system relaxes, and they're able to refrain from some of the self-stimulatory behavior," Slavin-Hughes said. "It's almost like their bodies are too excited and they can't regulate. It helps them to be able to regulate their nervous system and their whole bodies."

As with Dylan, the relaxing savasana pose at the end of a yoga practice is a good opportunity to regulate.

"I use essential oils that help induce relaxation, and they smell beautiful, and it's just a nice sensory experience overall," Slavin-Hughes said. "And I'll go around to each person and do a small massage on their heads or their shoulders with these pleasant-smelling oils like lavender or peppermint."

But she also stresses that simpler methods can be used, too. Slavin-Hughes notes that the kind of behavioral therapy intervention that autistic children get as preschoolers sometimes doesn't necessarily extend into later years, and can be supplemented by parents.

"People don't necessarily think, 'Let me place my hand on my child's arms and just give a gentle but firm, loving, squeeze," she said.

"I was explaining to people it's just like someone giving you a hug when you're sad. If you're sad and you get a hug, you get a rush of endorphins, and it makes you feel better."

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