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Martial Arts and the Autism Spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to those who have difficulties with social interactions and communications. Across people there can be a huge variability in presentation of so-called “symptoms," hence the use of “spectrum” in the overall term.

I’m not a big fan of labeling, so now that I’ve got this out of the way, for the rest of this post we’ll just talk about the “autism spectrum” and not “people with," those “disabled” by, etc. It is what it is and lots of people do very well and have great lives. I don’t want to diminish them by using even accidentally pejorative language. Instead I want the focus on the potential everyone has.

In the autism spectrum, issues arise related to verbal and non-verbal communication, and social interactions involving emotional sharing and empathy. Behaviors where the same word, phrase, or movement is repeated in an almost or actual “obsessive” pattern are also often seen.

A common feature in the autism spectrum is performing stereotyped and repetitive movements. Which is kind of interesting for a different reason. This is also how you get better at motor skills—repetitive practice is the foundation of skilled learning. Particularly in traditional martial arts training.

With this in mind you might think that somebody in the autism spectrum should avoid doing repetitive physical skill training. That is, shouldn’t a physical practice routine that involves repeated punches, kicks, blocks, continuous patterns, etc. make things worse?

Apparently not, seems to be the answer. It’s got to be admitted that there is currently limited scientific evidence related to this question. But there is some. There are also the anecdotal experiences of those who have been involved in martial arts training with those in the autism spectrum.

A recent study by Fatimah Bahrami and colleagues at the University of Isfahan in Iran showed some amazing results. Thirty kids aged 5-16 who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were in their study. Half the kids were the “control” group and the other half participated in 3 months of training in traditional karate kata (pattern).

Kata form the backbone for technical learning in traditional Japanese martial arts. These  involve repeated sequences of attack and defence put together within a patterned structure. Kind of like a gymnastics or figure skating routine. But for self-defence!

In this study a scale to assess “stereotypy” was used with both groups before the training period, immediately after, and one month later. The kata training lead to a large and significant reduction in stereotypy that was still there one month after the training had stopped! This was a very clear result and is the best scientific evidence that martial arts training could be an effective method for positively affecting motor activity in the autism spectrum. This study corroborates some other similar but smaller and informal studies that have appeared.

Additionally, and I’ll admit this is anecdotal, but during my 25+ years of teaching martial arts I have had several students in the autism spectrum. They have all benefited positively from the training. Not only did they improve in actual skill at martial arts, but the parents reported positive effects on other activities at school and in the home.

For older readers, now is the time for the $64 000 question—why might this be so? Understanding why means pointing out better how to improve how to apply these ideas going forward.

Here’s what I think. And I will say up front that this is my speculation. This is not based on any scientific investigation but rather on my experiences as a martial arts practitioner and teacher and as a neuroscientist. I think it has to do with the activity being repetitive activities that are externally-cued. 

A huge part of the teaching methodology in traditional martial arts involves visual training. In the example above, trainees watched the teacher or “model” perform the movements in the kata.They then either repeat the movements themselves or follow along supplemented by verbal and physical feedback to correct and improve the movements learned. This is a very typical training methodology and is what I meant by externally-cued.

At least initially, the timing of the movements and the way to perform them are taken from watching an expert perform. So the learner is basically following along with what s/he is seeing. Their movements—which are derived from complex activity in the motor planning and output areas of the brain—are obviously produced “internally”. But they are cued externally.

Even with lots of training where complex martial arts techniques have been well learned and essentially become automatic, there is still a huge component of “external cuing”. That’s because martial arts movements represent attack and defence sequences. So they are always externally cued even when practiced without a partner. There is always an attacker—either real or imagined—to trigger the responses.

This contrasts with repetitive stereotyped movements that are often seen in the autism spectrum. These are more often internally triggered by the person themselves. They can occur independently of obviously related cues in the environment.

My speculation is that this is related to something very interesting that goes on in group activity of collections of neurons in the brain. They can get entrained into certain rhythms and patterns of activity. For example, in extreme injuries like a limb amputation, collections of neurons in the sensory and motor parts of the brain can change their activity patterns.

Those neurons can then do some very odd things. Like continuing to be active as if they were still connected to, controlling, and sensing the limb that has been amputated. This produces a “phantom limb”. A limb that is not there physically but which persists neurologically. You can feel it but it isn’t there. And it can often have a lot of pain associated with it. How do you get rid of the feeling of pain in a limb that does not exist?

The way to break the unusual activity in the brain is to provide something else that interferes with it. Vilayanur Ramachandran and colleagues at the University of California at San Diego have taken a clever approach to this. They tried to trick the brain into thinking the missing body part does exist. Using a split mirror set up (often a “mirror box” is used), a person can see the other side of their body on the mirror side.

Using this kind of setup with someone who has an amputation creates the visual illusion of another intact arm. If participants carefully study their movements and do different tasks with the intact limb while looking in the mirror it will seem that the amputated limb is actually moving and feeling sensation.

Over many sessions of practice, the sensation of the phantom limb will often be reduced or disappear. This is pretty wild sounding but it appears to be grounded in the fact that our brains put the most weight on vision. If vision says there’s an intact limb there that isn’t feeling any pain, it will override the conflicting information coming from other parts of the brain.

So why does this matter? My suggestion is that the use of an external movement pattern becomes the context that is now used to frame the subconscious brain activity of the person doing the training. In this way externally cued movement triggered by visual motor learning winds up changing motor related brain activity. In this way changes in overall brain function can then be seen externally.

It would be great to see more scientific research into this area. Currently, it seems that safe and effective traditional martial arts training (note: not just fighting practice) delivered by highly trained instructors can be another form of effective, and useful physical activity for everyone. Including those in the autism spectrum.       © E. Paul Zehr, 2012


Baytown Student Highlight— Roberto Infante

What is your name and age?

Roberto Infante, 23 

When did you join Elite MMA?

I joined Elite MMA after finding a place to foster my lifelong passion of martial arts. I had wrestled in high school but had to stop due to an injury, now I’ve been able to start martial arts again. I joined Elite MMA because of the atmosphere which the instructors (Rob and Julian) foster; they focus on the individual growth of all students from white to brown belts. They motivate each student by fostering strengths and helping overcome any weaknesses. 

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?

I was on my high school wrestling team but had to stop due to a previous injury. 

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?

See above. 

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?

This isn’t my first time taking martial arts classes, but it’s the first time when I’ve taken martial arts classes where everyone is accepted regardless of experience. Rob and Julian have made a concerted effort to foster an atmosphere of humbleness, equality and education, which not only attracted me to the school but solidified by decision to join.


If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?

The general Star Wars love of most of the members. 

Since you have been part of Elite, what have you been able to accomplish?

I’ve attained 3 stripes as a white belt, as I learned the basics of jiu-jitsu. My proudest jiu-jitsu accomplishment has been seeing my classmates compete at superfights. 

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get involved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?

Try it! You’ll either love it or hate it, but you’ll know after that first class. And if you’re just starting (like me) don’t stop coming, consistency is more important than talent. 




Westheimer/Greenway Instructor Highlight: Jose Aguilar

Birth place: Houston, Texas                                 

Profession: Martial arts instructor and Program Director

What martial art(s) have trained in: 
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - 2010-present  Muay Thai/Kickboxing/Boxing - 2010-present

Number of years of training martial arts: I started training at Elite in the summer of 2010 so currently close to 7 years

When did you start teaching at Elite MMA? Since June 2012. 

What is your martial arts teaching history and where do you currently teach? I have been teaching martial arts a little over five years now. I started out assisting the kids jiu jitsu class and moved up to teaching other classes like KIDS BJJ, FFT, KKB, KB fund, BJJ app, BJJ end and many more.. I am currently teaching at the Westheimer and Greenway locations.

What is your current rank in martial arts? I am currently a three stripe purple belt in BJJ.

What is your educational background? I am currently a sophomore at Houston community college. Then I will be looking to transfer at the University of Houston where I will be finishing with a bachelor's degree in Finance.

Do you have a competitive history in martial arts? Yes, I started competing three months into my training. Mainly jiu jitsu tournaments, I've won many local and international tournaments. My most recent accomplishment was taking a gold medal in the Abu Dahbi Jiu Jitsu Trials and the Houston International Open.

Are there any professional accomplishments that you are proud of and why? I am proud of helping grow the Greenway location from 50 to 200 students with my long time friend/training partner Mitchell Norton.

Any sports/activities that you participated in that you are proud of? I was the team captain for the JROTC physical fitness team at Alief Hastings High school. Our team took 1st place on all events 2 years in a row!

What hobbies do you enjoy and why? 

Fishing, hunting, mudding anything your typical Texan would do. I love Texas.

Any memorable family moments that you would like to share? That time hurricane Ike was suppose to come to Houston so we take a road trip to North Texas. Boy, did we get played...

What do you see is the main benefit the average individual can receive from martial arts? The staff here are at Elite are people that really enjoy what they do day in and out. We take pride in coaching students to the next level. So if you are looking for self defense, to get in shape or just find a new hobby, rest assured we have your back!

What is your favorite part about practicing martial arts? My favorite part of martial arts is that it challenges you mentally and physically. I enjoy the adversity and rewards from training. It has definitely made me a better individual compared to 7 years ago.

Where do you hope martial arts will take you later in your life? I see myself at 70 years old still training and kicking butt!!

Greenway Student Highlight—Arthur Mata

What is your name and age?

Arthur Mata 40 years old 

When did you join Elite MMA?

October of 2016 

Why did you decide to start taking martial arts?

I was not seeing results at a regular gym. I wanted something that made me actually feel that I worked out. Also, I am a smaller sized guy that is a police officer. There have been several situations that I did have to fight someone, but I was always fortunate enough I had other officers with me at that time. I’ve worked the streets by myself, and sometimes you have to take control of the situation until back up arrives. My goal is to make sure I make it home at the end of every shift.

In the past what had caused you not to take martial arts?

It was always a schedule conflict. I have always had to work late in the evening when most classes are being taught. I am very fortunate I have found Elite MMA teaches lunchtime classes that fit my schedule. 

Is this your first time taking martial arts and what classes do you take?

Yes. Along with private lessons, I am taking the Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing classes

If you had any concerns about joining Elite MMA, what helped you with your decision?

The Westheimer location was a little bit of a drive and the schedule did not work for me. When I found out Greenway was open and the schedule that was provided, I immediately had to sign up.


Since you have been part of Elite, what have you been able to accomplish?

I have lost some weight, thankfully I am smaller now than when I first got out of the police academy. My confidence in myself and in self-defense has tremendously been boosted since I started my training. Also since joining, I was able to find a sense of focus I never had before. It helped me deal with my own personal issues.

Anything else you want to share with someone who is looking to get involved with martial arts or looking to change their current lifestyle?

DO IT!!! It’s going to hurt at first, but the payoff is well worth it.



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