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Karate and Autism Spectrum Disorder


Helping Your Child with Autism/Asperger’s Grow Through Martial Arts Training As parents, we know that participating in sports can be a useful tool to help […]

young boy rests in a pile of leaves in his yard

Helping Your Child with Autism/Asperger’s Grow Through Martial Arts Training

As parents, we know that participating in sports can be a useful tool to help children develop not only their physical and motor skills, but also other important life skills that will help carry them throughout their life. However, for children with Autism and Asperger’s – also known as ASD – it can be difficult to find a physical group activity that they can both enjoy and thrive at.

This is why martial arts are such a great option for children with ASD. In fact, karate can be incredibly helpful for children living with a variety of developmental disorders, including ADHD, dyspraxia, epilepsy, and Down Syndrome.

Karate can help with many struggles that are common among kids on the spectrum and provides a constructive outlet to help your child express themselves through physical activity. In the dojo, your child will find a supportive second family who always has their back, helping and encouraging them to reach their fullest potential.

Struggles that Children with Autism Often Face

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting the brain. Asperger’s is considered to be on the high functioning end of the spectrum, however, children with Asperger’s can still have difficulties participating in team sports.

Children on the autism spectrum have a difficult time developing social skills and can have trouble following the rules. They may exhibit restricted communication skills and repetitive or restricted behavioural patterns such as refusal to make eye contact, hand-flapping, rocking, or repetitive words, sounds or phrases. This is usually caused by overstimulation and is known as “stimming,” or self-stimulatory behaviour. When living with ASD, developing motor control, motor planning and core strength can also be major struggles.

Put all this together and it’s totally understandable that your child may feel discouraged or lose interest in traditional “team” sports. This is where karate comes in.

How Karate Can Benefit Children with Autism and Asperger’s

Like it does for anyone, karate helps children with ASD develop coordination, strength, and body awareness. The focus and concentration that is required can also help curb “stimming” behaviours. Many karate instructors are specifically trained to work with kids on the spectrum.

Karate focuses on the development of physical and cognitive skills including attention and self-control, which can be particularly helpful to a child with ASD. The structured learning environment allows your child to work toward tangible milestones in a consistent manner.

Teaches Repetitive movements

Although it’s important for all kids, establishing a routine is an essential success factor for kids with ASD. Children on the spectrum thrive when they know exactly what to expect, which is why karate is usually a perfect match.

Unlike most other martial arts, karate uses choreographed forms (known as “kata”) that involve a pre-established set of repetitive actions and reactions to combat. These techniques are taught little by little, so when it comes time to learn different combinations, each kata will feel like second nature to your child. Not only that, but the repetition associated with karate helps improve focus, reaction time, concentration and memory.

Improves Motor Control

Learning new body positions through various karate techniques can help with motor planning and motor control problems, an issue faced by many children with ASD. Karate helps nurture these skills gradually, in an encouraging environment where your child will be able to tackle them at their own pace.

Balance and coordination are crucial for any martial art, and are reinforced consistently during practice. After all, part of the discipline that comes with learning karate involves spatial awareness. Your child will learn how to orient their body in the space they have, and react quickly to their surroundings while punching, jumping, kicking and changing direction.

Helps Build Confidence and Social Skills

Karate can be a useful tool in developing social skills and self-confidence. This is especially true for young children, who are only just beginning to grasp their sense of self. This in itself can be overwhelming, but at the same time they are learning how to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others. This is why early childhood can be such a turbulent time for children living with ASD.

Luckily, you as a parent can fill two needs with one deed. Karate will help your child build lasting friendships with other kids who share the same goals and interests. When kids are confident, secure and comfortable, socializing tends to be easier because they have learned to cope and overcome difficulties, which makes it easier for them to open up to others.

Kids learn confidence and social skills through practice, experience and familiarity – just like any other skill! Many children on the spectrum in particular thrive on routine and consistency, which is exactly the kind of environment karate offers. Plus, the group setting will help your child feel more comfortable with others while overcoming obstacles and reaching personal milestones helps them feel more comfortable with themselves.

Can Reduce Disruptive Behaviours

For a child with ASD, self-stimulatory behaviours like hand-flapping, rocking and other “tics” are a way to cope with an over-stimulating environment. These behaviours can be disruptive or even embarrassing for your child in the classroom, at home or in other social settings, especially for children toward the low-functioning end of the spectrum.

The repetitive kata your child will learn in karate can work much the same way, bringing them back into balance and allowing them to focus more easily. These techniques are a type of self-stimulatory behaviour themselves, and can create the same sensory feedback and brain activity as stimming would.

By learning these techniques in the dojo, your child will also be able to release any built-up energy and tension that might cause stimming outside of class. As a result, they won’t feel the need to engage in these problematic behaviours as often.

One-On-One Instruction

The non-competitive philosophy associated with karate makes it ideal for kids on the spectrum. There’s no pressure to “win,” and most importantly, they will be taught that failure is a learning experience that only serves to bring them closer to their goal. Rather than worrying about letting the team down, your child will be able to work at their own pace toward each new belt while the group cheers them on.

Karate classes usually consist of group demonstrations broken up by individual practice sessions. By engaging in one-on-one instruction during these sessions, your child’s sensei will be able to tweak the program as necessary to suit their needs and learning styles. Unlike most other team sports, your child will receive the individual attention they need in order to succeed. This also gives the sensei the opportunity to check in with them on a regular basis.

The Takeaway

Every child is different, including children on the autism spectrum. Each child will respond differently to different things, which is why it’s so important to keep the lines of communication open between you’re your child and their sensei (instructor).

When you enroll your child in karate, talk to the instructor about your child’s specific needs and goals. If your child is not responding well to something, they will be happy to alter the program and find an alternative strategy that works for everyone.

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Scott Bullard