When I saw Sensei Daniel Spice's dojo, I thought that I might be about to write a piece about the cultural components and influences of karate, one of the Japanese martial arts. I was struck by the wonderful sight of the flags of the world that are the centrepiece of the room. All at once I recalled my own years as a teen and young adult learning various styles of martial arts, eventually settling on wing chun kung fu because of my Chinese heritage, and learning from a sifu (teacher) who seemed to just lead with a humble kind of air. Who was this leader who seemed to read us all so well, even if he had only just welcomed us into his school, and for free introductory lessons? I liked the strangeness of looking at a person who was capable of killing someone quickly and efficiently but seemed like the least likely person to ever do such a thing. Did I mention the serenity? What's with the serenity? I wanted some.
One night, I drove to the school in Surry Hills to investigate, and quickly found myself taking part in delightfully punishing drills and surprisingly difficult slow exercises that had me ambling about the next day with sore limbs. Despite the aches and pains, I was back within 48 hours. Fast forward a few months, and I was attending four times weekly; no longer sore... no longer smoking, and no longer feeling like everything in my life was beyond my control. Suddenly I was hitting the beach for a run and a swim at 5:30am before my workday began, and - although I didn't know it at the time - I practised my mindfulness skills. Kung fu taught me that even if I could control nothing else in my life, I could control myself. I could strengthen myself.
I liked the rituals of kung fu. I liked that I could attend a group activity but not be pressured to bond immediately and do this thing called "socialising" that - true to this day - I can take or leave. I liked that I could do well in something with nothing but pure mimickry, and never look a single person in the eye the whole time if I wasn't having a great day. And I loved that it wasn't just about fitness. It was about bringing my mind to a place of stillness and control.
Only after that did I learn that my great grandfather was a Kung Fu Master.
Martial arts are something that humans all over the world do, and they are generally about more than just "learning how to fight". You may think of the Asian nations when you think of martial arts, but there are styles from outside Asia, such as Brazil , Africa and even Egypt.
Many of us who have been students of the martial arts will talk about a sense that it's a holistic activity. It's a mentality which supports an individual to become comfortable with their body and in tune with their health. Importantly, it may also be an avenue to mental health benefits and tools that can be applied across an individual's life; students and teachers alike report an improved general sense of confidence. Teachers of martial arts in Australia generally hold a holistic view of health. Possibly most recognisable in many martial arts schools are rituals and practices which are clearly equipping students with mindfulness and meditation skills. The great thing about all this is that martial arts classes are accessible.
I spoke to Sensei Spice (pictured above) about the reasons he first joined the discipline.
"It was probably the only sport that my family could afford. With a family of eleven kids, we did boxing and things like that at the Police Boys' Club [now PCYC]. The Police Boys' Club was awesome. They also had judo. My Aunty Edna had a black belt in judo, so we all started in judo, and then we moved to Richmond from St Mary's. My mother used to drive us from St Mary's to Riverstone every week to do judo, but when we moved over here, there were no Police Boys' Clubs, but they did judo at the St Monica's school hall, so we started judo there. Something happened to the instructor and the judo club fell through, but then my older brother Geoffrey became the world champion of karate in 1984. He became our coach. We just followed that path, and we've been doing it ever since! I've been doing karate for over forty years, now."
So many people don't know you're here! I certainly didn't know you were here.
"No, it's all via referral. All word of mouth. I am now training the children of the parents and grandparents I also trained. We have supplied more competitors to the Australian Karate Federation than any other club in Australian history. A lot of the representation comes from us, which we're very proud of. Karate now is the second most popular sport on the planet, behind soccer. Why? Both sexes are welcome. There's no age discrimination. It's an indoor sport, so it's year-round and no off-season. Also, people with disabilities are welcome. Wheelchairs or vision impairment are no object. Australia has the vision-impaired world champion."
Researchers have even begun to explore the benefits of karate for kids on the spectrum, for example, a small sample of kids who tried out karate for 14 weeks and were found to have reduced communication deficits, according to the measure used in the study by Bahrami, et al (2016). Let's not also forget that this research on martial arts for individuals on the spectrum is being built upon a strong empirical base of the physical benefits of martial arts; especially for musculoskeletal strength (Mastnak, 2017).
As with all things autism, it's important - despite the "spiritual" components of many martial arts styles - to keep evidence at the front of the discussion. I've cited a couple of studies here, but - by and large - scientific studies do not "prove" things. They build evidence over time which will help us form an overall understanding of a relationship between variables. With something as complex and varied as autism, critical and educated thinking is a must. Conversely, while one study is just one study, it does keep us wise to a lot of quackery if we read the (actual) findings of enough of them.
Families who live with autistic children in particular are often fatigued, could use more support than they get, and they're desperate for solutions, which is why Dr Google's solve-all cures are so tempting to snap up eagerly. In areas like martial arts which blur the line between the physical, mental and spiritual, it's important to look for evidence. While this little exploration of martial arts as a protective factor for autistic kids, youth and adults is interesting for me to research and write (and hopefully interesting for you to read), let's ensure we're clear on something: some things work for some people. Other things work for other people. This might work for you, and there is support in our community and in scientific literature to suggest it's worth checking out.
Gabrielle Koles is a local mum of two boys and speaks about her experiences of finding an activity that her son Damon could enjoy:
"When Damon was 5 and about to begin school - as well as being newly-diagnosed - I was terrified that he may not have the skills to make social connections, let alone friendships. I put him into multiple activities, being soccer, little athletics and martial arts. Soccer was not a great fit at the time, as it required strong teamwork. Often, he’d be up one end of the field... face up to the sun in his own world with little knowledge there was a game being played down the other end of the field. With little athletics the challenge was waiting for his short turn between events. The uncertainty of where to go and what would be next was tough to manage for a small child with “extreme behaviour “.
"Karate, on the other hand, truly worked for him. He loved going. At one point, we were going three nights a week. He learned skills like self discipline, he admired his senseis and was eager to participate. He was part of a team, but only expected to grow at his own pace. He learned resilience and through self confidence became less likely to be victimised for being a bit different. Kids who are confident in standing up for themselves are not usually a target for bullying. He also learned skills for self defence through sparring, called kumite, in a safe environment and mindfulness through kata. For these reasons (but not limited to these reasons), karate was the perfect activity for Damon."
Elka Cruz is also a Hawkesbury local and an Accredited Exercise Physiologist. It also happens that she is a Sensei at Hawkesbury Shotokan Karate; now running classes for kids and adults at Grose View Public School on Thursday evenings. I was pretty excited to get the perspective of someone who's not only a 3rd Dan Black Belt but an exercise scientist.
Elka says, "I very much believe that martial arts is for everyone of all abilities and ages. The main thing I see is the increase in confidence which is translated to other or all aspects of their lives. You can see it cascade into other aspects of physical and psychological development. Being able to learn new skills in an environment that is safe and supportive is so important in enhancing their own abilities and enables them to feel part of a group, community and bigger family."
I commented that as I consulted the scientific literature I was only able to see the beginnings of research into the benefits of martial arts for kids and adults on the spectrum, despite the supportive tone of the research that does exist. However, Elka's got a point: "There is loads of evidence on how exercise is so beneficial for mental health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and injuries and improving strength and cardiovascular fitness. This is just as important for them."
You can in touch with Sensei Elka Cruz by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can chat to Sensei Daniel Spice and his staff at KBI Hawkesbury Martial Arts via their Facebook page.
Bahrami, F., Movahedi, A., Marandi, S., & Sorensen, C. (2016). The effect of karate techniques training on communication deficit of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(3), 978-986. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2643-y
Mastnak, W. (2017). Karate-based prevention of work-related musculoskeletal syndromes: A study on the possible benefits of martial arts in sports medicine and for occupational health. Sport Sciences for Health, 13(1), 1.
Zehr, E.P. (2012). Martial Arts and the Autism Spectrum. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/black-belt-brain/201211/martial-arts-and-the-autism-spectrum