Martial Arts Therapy for Asperger's Syndrome

boy doing martial arts

For adults and children with high functioning autism, body awareness and core strength can be challenging. You may find that martial arts therapy for Asperger's Syndrome can help. Although this type of treatment isn't for everyone, there are several reasons it can be beneficial.

Ways Martial Arts Therapy Can Help

In martial arts therapy, the instructor or physical therapist may take extra time to work with the individual. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin, this one-on-one training, combined with the physical movements and other skills learned during therapy, can have many benefits for a person with Asperger's:

  • It may be easier for the individual to pay attention for longer periods of time.
  • The repetitive movements of martial arts may reduce the individual's dependence on stimming behavior like hand flapping.
  • Learning new body positions can help with motor planning problems, an issue many people with Asperger's face.
  • This type of therapy by improve core strength and motor control, which according to The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, is a common problem for people on the spectrum.
  • The structured social interactions in the martial arts class may help improve the skills and confidence of people with Asperger's.
  • Having a constructive outlet for physical energy may reduce disruptive behaviors.

Starting Therapy

Before you begin martial arts therapy, it's important to talk to a doctor. Your doctor or your child's pediatrician can make sure there are no underlying health concerns that could present a problem during this type of activity. Medical professionals may also have resources for finding martial arts therapy programs in your area.

Depending on the individual's functioning level, he or she may be able to join any martial arts class. However, it can be helpful for people with Asperger's to receive some one-on-one instruction or martial arts therapy that targets their needs.

Established Martial Arts Schools for People with Special Needs

If you or your child would like to begin receiving this type of therapy, it may be a challenge to find a special needs martial arts school in your area. Although this type of therapy is growing in popularity, only a few schools specialize in teaching martial arts to children and adults with special needs.

The following schools, located around the country, offer programs designed for people with Asperger's and other special needs:

How to Design a Martial Arts Program for Asperger's

Since there are not many martial arts programs focusing on people with Asperger's, you'll likely have to work with an individual teacher or therapist to design a program for yourself or your child.

  1. Decide if there's a particular martial art you'd like to pursue. Popular options include judo, karate, jujitsu, taekwondo, and many others.
  2. Find out about local options for martial arts. Dojo Locator offers a lookup by county and includes more than 23,000 martial arts schools. Almost all dojos (martial arts schools) provide the ability to observe or even participate in introductory classes for free, and this is a good way to see if the style, the teacher, and the environment are conducive to a child's therapy.
  3. Call martial arts instructors in your area to see if they provide one-on-one instruction for people with special needs. Also consult a physical therapist to see if he or she has any specific recommendations.
  4. Set up individual meetings with each instructor to talk about the particular special needs of the individual with Asperger's, your goals for the therapy, and any extra qualifications the instructors may have. If you are finding an instructor for your child, bring your child to the interview. That way, you can observe how the therapist interacts with your child.
  5. Talk about payment options. Your medical insurance may cover the therapy if it's performed by and instructor who is also a physical or occupational therapist. If not, be sure to discuss payment up front with the instructor.
  6. Review your notes from the interviews, and select a martial arts instructor.

Discuss the Therapy Plan and Specific Movements

After you've decided on a sensei (instructor), talk to him or her outside of the class about the specific needs and goals for your child. Just as in a school environment, helping the teachers and other students understand the different learning styles and strategies necessary for Asperger's can turn everyone into a team working together for a common goal.

You'll also want to go into greater detail about the therapy plan. Make a list of goals you'd like to achieve with the martial arts therapy. These might include improved attention span, better balance and coordination, and increased confidence, among others. Then get specific by listing observable behaviors, like concentrating on a task for five minutes or walking on a balance beam, and a time frame for achieving these goals. Your martial arts instructor will have lots of great ideas for how the movements may help you or your child meet these goals.

Dealing with Problems

The non-competitive philosophy associated with martial arts therapy makes it ideal for people on the spectrum. Individuals rarely report problems with the therapy, but as with any new therapy approach, it's a good idea to be on the lookout for behavior changes that might indicate a problem. Using martial arts therapy for Asperger's patients isn't right for everyone. The same difficulty that faces many individuals and parents of children with autism spectrum disorder applies here: not all therapies work for all people, even people who seem to have the same characteristics of the disorder.

Behaviors Indicating a Problem

Watch for the following behaviors:

  • Increase in stimming behavior
  • Limping or indicating injury
  • Using the martial arts skills in violent ways
  • Becoming more withdrawn
  • Resistance to attending therapy

Getting a Good Fit

If you or your child is having problems adjusting to the new therapy, be sure to speak to the instructor directly. He or she may be able to adjust the approach to better meet your needs.

Keep in mind that some acclimation may be necessary. Some parents have found that their child could only go to a few minutes of the first lessons, but as time went on, the classes became easier. Eventually, the child could stay for the entire time. If a "hard" art like karate or tae kwon do doesn't seem to work, you may want to experiment with alternatives like aikido, t'ai chi chuan, or even a mixture of dance, music, and martial arts like capoeira.

Talking About Violence

People with Asperger's are sometimes the target of bullies, and martial arts can provide a way for them to defend themselves. However, it's very important that parents talk to their children about violence. Most martial arts instructors will emphasize the non-violent nature of this sport, but it can be tempting for children to use martial arts as a means to release pent-up frustration. Reinforce the idea of talking about feelings and letting out anger in constructive ways. Also remind your child that he or she should report any bullying to you or to a teacher.

Stay Involved

Martial arts therapy can be very helpful to individuals with Asperger's, especially if parents and advocates work with the sensei to create a therapy program tailored to the individual's special needs. Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting martial arts therapy, and as with any new therapy approach, it's important to stay involved and watch for signs that the individual is struggling. Your involvement is a key part of making the martial arts therapy experience a success.

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Martial Arts Therapy for Asperger's Syndrome