Autism, ADHD and Martial Arts

I tend to believe that Autism and ADHD are over-diagnosed and over-treated with medication; I believe most autistic or ADHD diagnosed kids would benefit more, in the long run, from clear rules, highly engaging activities and predictable patterns; I believe there is little help in much of our public schooling, mainstream medicine and the prevailing social belief that ‘no child be left behind’. I have only empirical evidence of this view. It is almost entirely based on my interaction with a small sample of kids over the last few years compared to an uncontrolled group of like-aged kids all engaged in the same activity, the martial arts.

The martial arts are one of my major hobbies, and one where I regularly teach two-to-three classes a week, and I periodically teach a dozen or more classes in a week. I do this because I enjoy teaching, I like kids (I have daughter, too) and I believe “paying-it-forward” helps me to develop my own skills and efficiently fosters growth in the next generation. I have developed the habit of teaching, and I do it for non-financial rewards. Does this make me an expert in autism or ADHD? No, and I do not claim so. I do have observations and what I observe is not consistent with the messages I perceive.

I interact with several kids who are diagnosed autistic or ADHD, some I know to be medicated. These kids all take martial arts classes each week in classes of a dozen or more other kids, who presumably are all ‘normal’. I have no idea if the ratio of behaviorally-challenged to normal kids is demographically in line with the community I live in. I would expect it to be close, from classes I have observed, and perhaps slightly heavier with the behaviorally-challenged group due to the reputation martial arts has with working with difficult kids. In the martial arts classes, all kids perform the same activities, take the same tests and are expected to do the same drills, and are basically treated the same way. The rules are consistent for every child, the demands are the same and the activities are high-energy and engaging. No child is expected to achieve mystical perfection, only to do the best they can and learn to challenge themselves. The behaviorally-challenged kids do just as well, overall, as the normal children; with perhaps the medicated children being somewhat less mentally-engaged in high-energy tasks.

I need to qualify, “do just as well”. There are motor-skill tasks which some kids require considerably more practice to achieve a visible level of skill. The autistic children take more practice-time to reach that visible level. Mentally, the same kids (autistic or not) often understand the motion, or drill, better than they can perform it. It is typical for these children to share, verbally and excitedly, their intellectual understanding when they perform these drills. I often have to enforce the rules to stop talking and pay attention to the drill, and share with me, or their classmates, after class. The reaction for new students the first few times is, a surprise to no one, embarrassment; the reaction for seasoned students is often a smile and a, “yes sir!”

All kids perform at different levels in the same age group. The behaviorally-challenged kids often define extremes of the normal distribution of skill, often opposite extremes at the same time. I can think if a few who can recall and describe a martial arts form (a Kata, Poomse or sequenced set of movements, like a dance) with near perfection, but have considerable difficulty performing those movements as well as they describe.

I have had parent comment to me that they were astonished we would issue a belt to a given child when they perform their forms poorly. In one case I recall having to tell the concerned parent that the child in question knows all the forms through to their black belt (15 forms at the school I attend) and at age nine can teach other kids to do those forms better than he can do it himself; this from a child who when he first started martial arts at age five would stare and mutter when asked a question. The ability to perform a form is not the only criteria for advancement.

I often use myself as an example. I am 39. I lack the physical ability to perform certain kicks and jumps, but I am fully capable of teaching them to others. Bela Karolyi is a world-renown Olympic gymnast coach, but you will not see him compete on the uneven bars, yet he can teach others to do so quite well.

Based on my observations I have come to believe as a society our response to development challenges are out of balance, too quick to presume a defect on the part of the child. What is more often required and frequently withheld, are patience, consistency and caring. Mind you, I am not trying to imply parents are uncaring as individuals but that our society has become quick to push drugs as panacea. I believe the allure of the instant fix is exceedingly powerful, but not so useful; our schools focus on remedial basics for everyone, when some children just need greater stimulation to retain an interest; and children who don’t meet the appearance of normal are too quickly presumed to be deficient.

Children are work. They are works in progress. Some require more work than others. Applying medication may make the immediate tasks easier for the worker, but does little to make the work any more spectacular. Sometime what is needed may just be a different set of tools.

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About Terry Losansky

Terry Dee Losansky

I am a software architect, actively practice and teach martial arts and live in Snoqualmie, Washington. I have an amazing daughter who is the jewel of my life.

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