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Martial Arts and Autism: A Winning Combination September 22, 2008

Posted by hopeauthority in Autism, Children, Parenting.
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I am so lucky to live in an area that offers opportunities for autistic and special needs children to participate in extracurricular activities, like a special needs martial arts class.  This class was not publicized… the few available spots got snapped up through word-of-mouth. 

Two years ago, when my son was 4, I enrolled him in a brand new kung fu program with 5 other autistic kids from his school.  The class rose to 8 at one point, then dropped to the 3 “regulars”. The guy who ran the class had a good heart…initially. My son loved him. The assistant who had ABA training (and was the reason we tried out the class and paid so much for it) dropped out after a few weeks, leaving the teacher to run the class without the proper background to redirect our kids.

Despite that, the boys did amazingly well. They stayed remarkably focused and quiet, did the drills, and acquired awesome gross motor skills. But they had their moments and in time, the teacher became frustrated. He’d cancel class and lie that there was a tournament. He kept raising the price for our kids and insisted on additional ans costly private lessons.  He thought he was the only game in town. But he was wrong. 

So the 3 “regulars” moved on. We found a new program. This time we struck gold. The sensi is a woman with 14 years of ABA experience! She was looking to start a special needs class, but needed a few more kids. (Seems like fate to me!)

Unlike the prior class, this one incorporates some playful time (with dance, parachutes, and hopscotch), along with the martial arts. This gives the teacher the chance to evaluate their gross motor skills and incorporate drills to improve them as needed.  It’s like OT and PT in a kimono!  (Actually the outfit is called a ghee, though I’m sure I’m not spelling it right!). 

As the kids get more comfortable, the playful part will be faded out. They may even mainstream to a typical class some day. Class will be limited to 4-6 kids. There’s an ABA trained assistant, too. And the price is fair and reasonable. No “penalty” for being special needs. No extra lessons.

The benefits of martial arts for autistic kids are amazing. The discipline helped ‘C’ focus. His balance and coordination is fantastic and last year, his gym teacher even marveled at his abilities. He beams with pride after a good lesson.  The social benefit is great, too.  Most of all, he is having fun.  And… bad mommy that I am… I pity the bully who may cross his path one day.

Both of these programs were started because of parents and their kids’ teachers seeking out a big-hearted martial arts instructor. We got to talking. Then it became “someone knows someone who…”. And finally, a program was born.

There are so many wonderful teachers and aides looking for this kind of out-of-classroom experience. Some parents have their home staff “shadow” at these classes.  My own son’s teacher assists in such a program inexchange for her own lessons. Martial arts instructors have a special place in their hearts for vulnerable children and they often want to help, but don’t know how to find the special needs students.  You have to find them.

So start searching. There’s a ghee waiting with your kid’s name on it…

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Comments»

1. Eric Esquivel - October 1, 2008

Fantastic article. I can’t believe your child’s first instructor had the audacity to pull such a stunt. I am a karate instructor here in Southern California with a few autistic students, so I’m trying to find ways to improve my skills when it comes to teaching them.

Thank you very much for this piece.

Oh, by the way, its spelled gi. : )

2. hopeauthority - October 1, 2008

Hey Eric! Thanks for posting–and correcting my spelling of “gi”! (I think my version was some component of butter!) Mostly, thanks for trying to teach our special kids.

I’m sure that if you contacted or put flyers up at some of the autism centers or preschools, the special education dept of your local school districts, the local public library, etc. that parents and teachers would bang down your door. Also consider universities that offer special education degree programs. Even just a flyer in your studio that you offer special needs classes and are looking for a trained assistant to either pay or barter for lessons (or whatever) would get people talking.

A therapist with ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) experience would be able to guide you in setting up (and possibly assist you during class in implementing) a token-type system to motivate the kids to stay on task, after which they get a reward (positive reinforcement). The reward must be something they really want. For my son, he loved working for a stripe on his belt. But other kids were motivated by other things.

Small, short classes. Small goals. Always positive reinforcement for good response. Never negative. If they don’t respond well, ignore it if possible (otherwise you’ll unwittingly reinforce the bad behavior by reacting to it!). If unable to ignore and redirect child, child should be removed from class by parent, again without negativity, until child regains composure. (I know, I know, its easy to write this, but hard to implement!)

Let me know how your class goes and if anything I mentioned helps you. I have access to many helpful therapists who have shadowed martial arts classes here on Long Island as well as the ABA trained owner of the studio my son now attends. I know they’d be happy to give you pointers!

Good luck. It makes me happy to know there’s someone like you out there in California making a difference!


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