Friday, August 15, 2014

Martial Arts: A Spectrum of Benefits for Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a far reaching diagnosis & covers many behaviors and traits. In the United States, 1 in 88 children are affected by Autism.

Since children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, often struggle with motor skills and may feel uncomfortable in large group competitive or team activities, the structure, discipline and one-on-one facets of Taekwondo can make a positive difference.

“Taekwondo is a dynamic martial art of self-defense noted for building strong bodies through punching and kicking. But it also builds strong minds. Through the discipline, attention and concentration needed to learn Taekwondo, (and to know when, and when not to use it) your child will enhance their personal skills needed to study longer and work harder in school. Coordination, strength and stamina for their body . . . and mind.”

The basic motor skills required for taekwondo are taught from the easiest to the most difficult, often sitting or lying down, depending on the technique performed.  These punches & kicks are practiced every class. The Colorado Taekwondo Institute instructors follow the same routine in every class. This practice of order and repetition aids all students in learning the techniques; especially those who need order and similar situations to feel comfortable, such as those with ASD.  The development of large motor skills that comes from taekwondo training helps the balance and coordination of ASD children, and all taekwondo students. The discipline of taekwondo is appreciated as the setting of appropriate limits and expectations.  There is limited talking; much of class is silent and is focused on mimicking the behaviors of the instructor.

Taekwondo focuses on order and repetition to achieve a skill.  This benefit truly fills a specific need of the child with ASD.  These children thrive on order and on non-verbal activities and responses.  The child with ASD often retreats within himself especially in new situations or in large groups.  One obvious advantage to taekwondo classes, particularly Colorado Taekwondo Institute’s classes, is the absolute repetition of the class.  The structure rarely varies – and the child can become comfortable in class knowing what comes next without anxiety.  Even the initial physical change of putting on a uniform the same as everyone else in class can signal the sameness and discipline of Taekwondo.

Each student progresses at his own pace and under the direct supervision of his certified Colorado Taekwondo Institute instructor.  This individual focus takes away the sense of competition that many children experience in other sports.  While the taekwondo classes are made up of students at different levels, there is very little competition, but much cooperation. Since taekwondo is an individual art; but is taught in a group, the child with ASD receives both one-on-one interactions and group time – both of which are important to his growth and the ability to regulate his own behaviors.  

The connection between the discipline and regulation of Taekwondo and the child with Autism Spectrum Disorder’s need for repetition and routine can lead to an improvement in the child’s motor coordination, ability to be attentive and to connect with others.  The improvement in behaviors specific to ASD, as well as in behaviors that many children struggle with, like aggression, self-control and communication shows that martial arts training’s benefits reach farther than reduction of stereotypical behaviors.  This shows the mind/body connection and its importance in changing behaviors or learning new skills.

This mind/body connection of memorizing techniques is a huge part of the benefit that martial arts can bring to the child affected by ASD.  The focus on engaging the mind to help the body mimic the behaviors helps the student with ASD to act outside their comfort level without being challenged.  The repetition is both soothing and reinforces and improves the movement.  This connection between mimicking behaviors and owning the techniques is seen in all students; students with ASD specifically thrive on the mimicry before understanding the technique.  Colorado Taekwondo Institute’s emphasis on educational martial arts brings the mind/body connection into even greater focus.

The correlation between martial arts training and improvement in the stereotypic behaviors of ASD students is positive.  Martial arts training benefits all who practice it; but for those affected by ASD, martial arts is an area where they can succeed in sport as an individual and improve social skills and abilities.  Martial arts training helps those with ASD to integrate their body, mind and spirit in a way that other activities cannot help them do.  Taekwondo is a complete activity that engages the psychomotor, affective and cognitive domains in balance with each other, to integrate not only the Taekwondo practice; but the whole person.  Contact the Colorado Taekwondo Institute in your area to find out more on the training benefits specific to your situation.

Sources: University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.  The Benefits of Martial Arts in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Abstract p. 52. Tara Schmitz, Rachel Nelson, and Andrew Oebser Advisor: John Greany, Physical Therapy.  Presented  April 2012.

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