Martial Arts Versus Autism Spectrum Disorder

Being involved in any kind of physical activity can be challenging in itself. A common symptom of ASD is a difficulty with coordination. Social interaction is another. Combine the two, and you have a hella’ time trying to engage in a physical activity such as a sport.

I took special interest in Martial Arts at a young age. What was a fascination for me also resulted in a “cure” for coordination issues. I learned balance, simultaneity, dexterity, control, speed, fluidity, technique, concept—all of these things are what helped me.

Having typed all of that, there are still numerous challenges for someone On The Spectrum who wants to pursue Martial Arts training.  It particularly revolves around instructor/coach-student communication. Someone like me has a noticeable processing delay when dealing with VERBAL instruction (or general spoken communication, period). I have to SEE something in order to understand it. Someone like me takes things literally—especially verbal instruction.

Example: in 2010 during Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling training in Salt Lake City, UT, my Head Coach, Billy Robinson (RIP) instructed me to “turn in” while I was being taught a new technique.  I did just that—I turned IN towards my training partner. I was immediately scolded for it. He meant for me to turn my back to my partner (an escape technique). I spoke out and said: “he told me to turn IN, so I turned IN.” When I could actually SEE the techniques demonstrated I could immediately detect the pattern behind the technique and grasp it much quicker.

Example: in 2015 during Gracie Combatives class in Louisville, KY, I had several fellow students ask me how I was able to learn the demonstrated techniques so quickly. My response: “oh, I’ve done it before.” This was an outright lie, however, as I didn’t have time to explain that I’m a visual/pattern-based learner.

Unfortunately, one must also deal with excessive personality clashes and machismo. I made it a rule to ONLY compete with MYSELF and NEVER compete against others. I found I would improve much quicker this way and not worry about ego—much less others’ egos—slowing me down or causing even more anxiety. Sometimes, fellow training partners don’t quite understand who they’re training with and get frustrated or agitated and either tease or take their frustrations out on (you).

Example: in 2015 during Brazilian JiuJitsu class in Louisville, KY, I was “rolling” with a training partner and used some Catch Wrestling techniques to counter what he was doing to me—which helped me keep from being tapped-out and put me in a more dominant position each time. I was also able to break-out of his “Guard” fairly easily each time. I didn’t realize he was getting pissed about it (he was a more advanced belt than me at the time). He later became quite excessive in another training session. It took me a long time to analyze that experience to understand WHY he was acting that way. The next time we were training, I purposely allowed him to get the advantage, twice, and that seemed to calm him down. Score that victory for not having an ego.

For someone On The Spectrum, it can be downright difficult to learn the rules of one Martial Art and learn a completely different set of rules of another Martial Art (or Combat Sport).  Someone like me learns patterns, specifically, so any like movement or pattern may trigger a different response that contradicts what should be done at the moment (e.g. you repeat the exact movement that you learned from another style when you’re not supposed to).

Example: in 2009 during Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling training in Salt Lake City, UT, I had a hella’ time learning The Pivot—a specific footwork used to generate more torque when applying takedowns against an opponent. Unfortunately, The Pivot partially-yet-contradictory conflicted with the Aikido Tenkan (circular) footwork I learned in 1990, and each time I attempted the CACC Pivot, I slipped into Aikido’s Tenkan movement instead—resulting in scolding from my Head Coach.

Example: in 2015 during Brazilian JiuJitsu class in Louisville, KY, I had extreme difficulty restraining myself from using the Catch Wrestling leg submissions and foot manipulations (e.g. Toe Holds) that were not allowed in BJJ.  I was scolded by my Head Instructor for using a very basic Toe Hold to torque my training partner out of Side Cross Mount/Side Control while I was on the bottom position.

One thing someone like me learns is how to adapt and employ “cheating” concepts to help compensate for the many challenges that ASD contributes toward interactions—even physical. Those of us On The Spectrum like to talk about social awkwardness and challenges and how we adapted (e.g. “faking it”) to overcome them in adulthood. It isn’t commonplace to read about those of us On The Spectrum who have done the same thing regarding physical activities, however.. hence the purpose of this posting.

4 thoughts on “Martial Arts Versus Autism Spectrum Disorder”

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