Martial Arts and Autism – Lessons for Life
By John Krejcha –
On any given day or evening in the Portland metro area, one can find youth and adults of all ages and abilities participating in some form of martial arts. While there are several hundred types of martial arts around the world, the most common are Taekwondo, Karate, Aikido, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Martial arts participation of those ages six and older in the United States has grown from approximately 2.1 million people training in 2011 to over 3.9 million in 2015. This trend spike includes an increasing number of youth and adults in the autism community.
Martial arts can assist youth and adults on the autism spectrum in a variety of ways, including physically, emotionally and socially. A few common benefits reported by families include improved balance and coordination, increased focus and attention to detail, better self-esteem and a method for self-regulation.
A 2010 research project conducted by the University of Wisconsin physical therapy department also confirmed what many parents were already reporting — in the course of learning martial arts, children on the autism spectrum grew more socially assertive and cooperative and essentially came out of their shells.
In August of 2016, The Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation published a study authored by Yumi Kim from the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Northridge. The purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of an 8-week Taekwondo intervention on balance in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to children not receiving the intervention. Their findings suggested that TKD can be a fun, feasible, and effective therapeutic option for balance improvement of children with ASD.
AJ O’Gorman, a 14-year-old Asperger’s teen from Vancouver, became involved with martial arts when he was seven years old when he joined an after-school program at his elementary school. His experience helped him feel calmer and less stressed. “I like the physical activity of Taekwondo. I like the forms. It is repetitive and consistent. Even though there is a stigma about martial arts being violent, it is the opposite. It teaches you valuable lessons like restraint, respect and responsibility.”
One of the hallmarks of all the different martial arts is the repetition. “After seeing the benefits of just a few weeks in an after-school program, we knew we’d finally found something involving physical activity and fun that would be good for him,” shares AJ’s mother, Tara O’Gorman. She continues, “He graduated out of physical therapy and occupational therapy within months of starting Taekwondo. He learned about self-control, self-respect, respect for others and how to protect himself.”
“AJ and his brother along with myself took taekwondo, and we all benefited from the physical activity and the mental challenge involved in achieving black belt. AJ, who eventually earned a 2nd-degree black belt grew from a physically and emotionally awkward and timid little boy to a strong, confident young man.”
Zachary Borghello, a 13-year-old teen with ASD from Salmon Creek, WA is also no longer in occupational therapy. He joined East West Martial Arts in 2013 where they teach a different form of martial arts each quarter. He now wants to be a martial arts teacher when he grows up. Shares his mom, Julie Borghello, “Zachary had been having occupational therapy for many years, and we were starting to look at where he possibly could get similar benefits but in a more inclusive setting with his peers. We had heard from a few friends who also have children with ASD that martial arts was great for their kids, so we figured it was worth a try.”
“It makes me feel great, it makes me feel strong and energetic,” exclaims Zachary. He continues, “They teach you things like positive attitude, perseverance and excellence. Class is fun and hard, the teachers really help you to improve.”
Ken Gering teaches at East West Martial Arts in Vancouver, WA and has been working with Zachary from the start. “Zachary has grown in so many ways over the past few years. At the start, Zachary was hard to hear and now he is clear and understandable with wonderful voice control. Also, his core was very weak and now he can do handstands and assisted controlled flips. He really wants to learn the standing back flip. We are not setting any limits on him; we are taking it one step at a time.”
Julie has noticed additional advantages which have helped Zachary at home and school, including improved concentration. “There have been many benefits, some that aren’t part of the instruction and many that are. He has learned focus, discipline and the importance of practicing outside of class. They also talk in class periodically about being respectful, the importance of random acts of kindness, nutrition and other topics related to how he should act outside of class. It has also helped him deal with noise which was a challenge at first, but now it doesn’t bother him at all and he’s become less bothered about noise in general.”
Local families have also reported increased self-advocacy when dealing with bullying behavior by others. Sophie is a 13-year-old Portland, OR teenager who started learning Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the past year. Her father, Mike McLaughlin shares, “Sophie, like many kids on the spectrum, has been a target for bullies in the past, and as great as her school staff is, they simply can’t be everywhere all the time. I started looking at many options some time ago and have narrowed it down to what I believe provides an incredibly powerful solution that I can fully get behind, and that Sophie can both enjoy and reap huge benefits from. I found a program called Gracie Bully Proof that was developed by the grandsons of the inventor of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.”
Mike continues, “What impressed me most about the program was it is truly a gentle art. Essentially, it is a thorough series of private lessons teaching every exact concept and detail of how to deal with a bully, from the initial teasing all the way to what to say if you end up in the principal’s office because things got physical. While it is rooted in martial arts, it does not involve hurting the bully. Sophie, like many on the spectrum, has zero interest in harming another human being. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has been a good fit for us because it does not involve hitting or striking. It is all about strategies to stop the bully with verbal Jiu-Jitsu, talking to adults, and should these strategies fail, giving our kids the tools and the confidence to protect themselves, control the bully and negotiate.”
When asked how she feels when she does martial arts, Sophie said, “Tough – and like I’m learning to defend myself like a pro.” She feels empowered because of her training when confronted by bullying behavior. “When a bully comes up to you, they have no idea that you’re ready for them.”
The confidence that Sophie is showing is not going unnoticed. Mike shares, “She has the knowledge and skills to deal with bullies appropriately and effectively. She is more confident and outgoing. School staff have commented on the increased confidence they see in her now, and we have not mentioned her Jiu-Jitsu.”
When asked to share what they would tell those considering martial arts for youth or adults on the autism spectrum, youth and parents cautioned that martial arts might not be a fit for everybody and to do your research beforehand on the different kinds of options out there.
Tara O’Gorman shares, “Just because one martial art or style does not work for a child, doesn’t mean something else won’t. Some kids like AJ thrive in the formal, rigid instruction he received from his instructors who taught in a traditional Korean style. Other kids enjoy a more fun, relaxed atmosphere that focuses on physical activity. Like anything, it’s all about finding the right fit for your child.”
Adds Julie Borghello, “As for martial arts in general, I would tell families that if they are looking for a sports activity for someone who would struggle with a team sport, then martial arts is a good option. They get the fitness, discipline, social interaction, and group experience as an individual participating without having to deal with game strategy.”
Mike McLaughlin encourages to choose wisely. “While any martial art can be beneficial, you should do your homework before you invest your time and money. Look for the program that will be most effective in meeting your goals.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine and was featured on the magazine cover. Pictured on the cover are local teen, Zachary Borghello posing with martial arts instructors, Mr. Doug and Mr. Ken from East West Martial Arts.