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Karate and the Autistic Spectrum Child: How Martial Arts Have Helped my Asperger’s Son

Updated on March 12, 2011
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My son, Daniel, has a syndrome called Asperger’s Disorder, a disorder that falls under the Autistic Spectrum umbrella, and since he had many of the coordination issues that are common to Autistic Spectrum children, I was reluctant to involve him in karate or another martial art. However, when he was 10 years old, someone finally persuaded me to put him into a karate class. After a few months, I took a step back and evaluated the situation. I was astounded at the results, and in the years since, I have encouraged Daniel to continue in the sport. Here are the three areas I saw a profound benefit in having my autistic spectrum child in karate.

1. Coordination. Before taking karate, Daniel tended to be, well, uncoordinated. Like many autistic spectrum or Asperger’s kids, his gate when walking was stiff and awkward, placing the majority of his weight on the balls of his foot, rather than balanced between his heel and the ball. As a result, he always seemed slightly off-balance and rigid. He didn’t swing his arms when walking, and when he was instructed to do so, he looked like a walking robot. Anything requiring balance or rhythm was a challenge, and normal things kids learn were complex for him. For example, it took him two years of almost daily practice to get the hang of swinging, and he could never master riding a bike.

When Daniel first began karate, I was concerned that he would not physically be able to perform the required moves. But I did some research to find the best school I could afford, and I explained Daniel’s situation to Mr. Smiley, the instructor. The instructor was very understanding and took Daniel under his wing from the beginning. He worked with Daniel, very patiently practicing and correcting over and over, and gradually, Daniel’s technique began to improve. The sensei taught him to shift his weight and move his body in the correct form for punching, instructed him how to run and time kicks, and had him practicing katas, or routine forms, repeatedly.

As Daniel learned to shift his body for kicks, punches, and blocks, he had to improve his balance. One cannot do a jump, spin, kick, landing on the opposite foot, without some sort of balance!

I began to notice some of the things Daniel was learning in karate spill over into things outside of the dojo. His gate when walking was more relaxed, moving in a more natural way. His weight shifted back slightly, instead of leaning toward toe-walking, and he no longer walked like a stick figure. By summer, he had learned enough about his center of gravity, balance, and movement to achieve something he had never been able to accomplish before; he was able to get on a bicycle and ride for the first time without training wheels. For the first time, thanks to a karate class, my Asperger’s child did not stand out like a sore thumb when walking or riding a bicycle down the sidewalk.

2. Character. The dojo Daniel attended had a strong history of teaching character and leadership skills. Mr. Smiley gave very specific, direct lessons on showing loyalty, treating others with respect, and showing proper etiquette. In fact, proper etiquette and respect began with the routine for simply walking in the door of the school. The teacher and students in the karate school were to be addressed in a particular manner, routines were to be followed in sparing (fighting), and there was no room for emotional outbursts, Asperger’s syndrome or not. For a child with an autistic spectrum disorder, routines and specific procedures often seem to have a grounding effect, and the class certainly had this effect on Daniel. And although it was difficult for him not to have a temper flare-up, the cut and dry rules of not allowing a temper tantrum actually had a profound effect. Gradually, Daniel began to learn to accept frustration and effort without a meltdown.

While the karate instructor was very patient with Daniel, he also did not have a problem with correcting him in a very direct, specific manner. If Daniel’s behavior was unacceptable, Mr. Smiley would correct him in a very clear manner, and then redirect him in an acceptable course of action. The sensei was very strict about speaking respectfully, and even expected his students to apply this outside of the class, and Daniel began to comply. He began speaking much more politely and even began to get a grasp on holding his temper when he was frustrated.

3. Confidence. I began to see a tremendous improvement in Daniel’s confidence level. Generally, the Asperger’s Syndrome made Daniel stand out when he was with a group of peers, and he became the butt of jokes and bullying. This treatment usually ended up with Daniel losing his composure and retaliating in some way. But in the karate classes, Daniel’s peers treated him with a respect he had seldom experienced. When Daniel was offensive in some overly direct way, the social faux pas was either ignored or corrected in a direct way and then dismissed. His peers didn’t hold a grudge and harass him later. For the first time, Daniel had a group of children he could interact with in a constructive manner.

Outside of the dojo, Daniel finally had an area where he stood out in a positive way, and it sort of leveled the playing ground a bit with his peers. His classmates were impressed with his martial arts ability and some were even somewhat envious, in a good way. They asked Daniel to teach them some moves, and since he was then in an instructor role, they seemed to be less resentful when Daniel corrected them, as he is inclined to do. Daniel was even able to participate in the school talent show, performing one of his karate katas.

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Today, Daniel has come a long way from his awkward days. He is a fit and tone teenager who moves dramatically more gracefully than I would have ever expected. I cannot say that Daniel is “normal”, whatever that may be. He is Asperger’s, and he always will be. But the karate classes have helped him tremendously, improving his social skills, helping his physical development, and over all, raising his confidence level. His martial arts class has kept him from being a complete video-game potato and enables him to interact in a positive way with peers. Of all the things I have done to help him in his journey, putting him in karate classes stands above the rest.

You may also want to read: Karate or Other Martial Arts Schools: How to Choose a Dojo.

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    • meghansmummy profile image

      meghansmummy 5 years ago

      Thankyou for this Ive been contiplating this for a while now x

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      Elinor 5 years ago

      I am an Aspergers Adult and I train in Karate 3-4 times a week. I have to 100% agree with you, what a great article! As a blue belt going to the advanced black belt classes I find the combinations sometimes overwhelming but I always practice when I get home until i master it and am soon going to attempt my red belt. It has taught me a great deal about co-ordination, balance and an awareness of what my body is doing that i was previously oblivious too. I have shared this article with my Karate Club, thanks for the inspiration!

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      Anjana 2 years ago

      reminded me so much of her big brother and her smile is just like her big sestir. She is pure sweetness and the perfect completion to her

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