MARTIAL ARTS HELP CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER SYNDROME
Sandra Beale-Ellis, 2008
My interest in Autism, and in particular, Asperger’s Syndrome started many years ago, when a parent of a karate student, told me her son had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. My initial reaction was ignorance and following that class I read as much as I could on Asperger’s. My interest grew and I now teach many children with Asperger’s and other ASDs.
Martial arts are a popular sport, more commonly known in the industry as arts. There are many martial arts including the arts of taekwondo, karate, tai chi and kung fu to name a few. These disciplines and others, are further split into a variety of styles. ‘Taekwondo has proven to be another great intervention for many kids with Asperger’s Syndrome (Willey, 2003).
Martial art training is very consistent and regular classes are likely to be similar in content, satisfying the child with Asperger’s need for routine and predictability. There is a ranking system of belts a child can achieved and techniques become more difficult with each belt. Basic training is always practised however, even when the student achieves the highest grades. This can be repetitive and can be a bore to many children, but to the child with Asperger’s, this repetition can be comforting. Luke Jackson (author of Freaks, Geeks and Asperger’s Syndrome, 2002) agrees ‘the fact that it is so structured and predictable makes it the perfect form of exercise for anyone on the autistic spectrum’.
The structure of a lesson is usually similar in that there is always a warm up of about 10-15 minutes, the basics, maybe some group work, possibly some sparring, and a short cool down or discussion session. There are variations to this, but for instructors experienced in teaching students with ASDs, if a major change is planned, students are told in advance. For example, if a different hall is to be used, students on the spectrum are invited to visit the hall and become familiar in advance of the class.
I found that over the years of teaching children with Asperger’s, when the class is due to learn new concepts or moves, it is most effective to pair them up with empathetic higher graded peers so that the student can be taught on a one-to-one basis, and then join the main class when he or she feels more confident. Watching other children execute the moves may also be an effective way to learn. This is relatively easy in martial arts as most of the work is taught in sections, eg, blocks or kicks, and then repeated over and over until the students are competent. With these basic moves, the child with Asperger’s feels comfortable because there is little need for any physical contact or interaction.
For a child with Asperger’s, who often experiences ‘lax joints, immature grasp, slowed pace of movements and problems with manual dexterity’ (Kirby 2002, cited in Groft and Black 2003), a martial art such as karate or taekwondo can be very beneficial. The kicking skills of these arts, and others besides, are an excellent way to develop balance, co-ordination and flexibility in all children. Groups of movements known as ‘kata’ or ‘forms’; and the various stances needed, develop strength, and also the ability to move the body in diverse ways. It can also help with the left versus right issue many children have.
There are some who may express concern about a child with an ASD practising martial arts. The tantrums which can occur during times of tiredness, frustration or anger could mean that the child will strike out with taught moves. While it is true many techniques can be dangerous, these would take many years to perfect with specific knowledge, and more dangerous techniques are never taught to children, with autism, or otherwise. All children who are taught martial arts are constantly reminded that if the arts are misused or abused, the child will be withdrawn from training and there may be serious legal ramifications. In my experience, students with Asperger’s, love their classes, and would try hard not to put their training in jeopardy. I teach my students, more so for those on the spectrum, simple breathing exercises which they can use wherever they happen to be, if they feel tension or anger coming on.