How martial arts can have a big impact on kids with autism

What are the best physical activities for kids on the autism spectrum?

Any activity that’s fun while also building physical skills is great. However, a review published in the journal Autism noted that two sports in particular had the biggest beneficial impact on children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): adaptive horseback riding and martial arts.

The moderate to vigorous activity of both sports help children with special needs meet the guidelines outlined in the Ability Toolkit and the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for children and youth. Plus, these sports also help develop cognitive abilities and physical literacy skills and, of course, they’re enjoyably stimulating!

Benefits of martial arts

The inherent structure and repetition in martial arts can help reduce anxiety in kids as they focus on individual goals and develop movement skills such as balance, flexibility, and hand-eye coordination. As kids practice choreographed moves and interact with other people in a fun and safe environment, they also improve communication skills, concentration, spatial awareness, and self-control.

While there are schools across Canada that offer adapted programs, André Langevin’s Autisme Karaté in Montreal focuses solely on children and adults with ASD and special needs.

At age five, Langevin’s son Philippe was diagnosed with autism and severe speech delay, and tried various forms of therapy and activities. It was after introducing Philippe to martial arts and seeing its positive effects that Langevin, a former RCMP officer and a black belt in karate with over 30 years of martial arts experience, founded Autisme Karaté in 2009 to help other children and their families.

How to help children with special needs get the most out of their activities

Langevin has worked with hundreds of students over the past decade and learned what strategies work best for children with ASD and special needs. Here are a few of his top tips.

1. Change the activity or approach, not the child

Langevin stresses the importance of being flexible and accommodating. “You have to be very sensitive and have patience and understanding, and you need to adapt, especially for the beginners.”

2. Be a child-centred trainer

Experienced and compassionate teachers are a must. Seven bilingual instructors help Langevin with his classes, and are all either parents who started at the school with their children, or students who have remained with the school. “Since they know the kids’ needs, they become the perfect teachers,” says Langevin.

3. Keep activities short and dynamic

Changing up exercises and games every 10 minutes or so helps keep kids stay alert and focused, and regular breaks will keep everyone from feeling stressed or tired. The students at Autisme Karaté balance on yoga balls, run and jump, and play games such as wheelbarrow walking that develop coordination and strength.

4. Include everyone

Making classes a family affair encourages some reluctant children to engage and participate where they otherwise might not be comfortable.

Rosie Saxe and her son Jason have been attending classes with Autisme Karaté for the past six years. Both have graduated to brown belts, and now assist others in the program.

“Jason’s confidence in himself has greatly increased and he is so proud of his skills,” says Saxe. “His endurance and strength have increased as well. We both feel strong, powerful, and more confident as well with skills of self-defense.”

5. Make sure everyone enjoys their time

“Parents and kids talk with each other and have fun. That’s our main thing, we have fun, myself included,” says Langevin.

Canadian programs

If the physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits of martial arts training sound appealing—and I bet they do!— consider one of these Canadian schools offering adapted programs:

Sirota’s Alchymy Martial Arts & Life Skills Centre in British Columbia offers martial arts and self-defense programs for people with various special needs at its Richmond and Vancouver locations.

Osuna Karate in southwest Calgary is dedicated to teaching all ages and abilities, and its Karate-able program aims to include individuals with motor, cognitive, and behavioural challenges.

Karate For Progress in the Greater Toronto Area offers specialized programming for different ages, needs, and levels of development. Included in classes are karate-based exercises and drills with social, fitness, and play elements.

Ferraro Karate and Martial Arts in Guelph, Ont., offers a school where “everyone is equal, and that helps kids with special needs feel that they belong to a welcoming and friendly community.”

Near Ottawa, Manotick’s 6 Tigers Academy has experience with one-on-one instruction for students needing support throughout a class, and can also help integrate students with special needs into children’s and adult classes. 

The Quebec-based Association for Developing Adapted Martial Arts works to support different types of martial arts clubs that include people with special needs, and has a list of affiliated clubs.

Make sure to also check with your local community centre as some offer adapted martial arts programs for children, youth, and adults with special needs.


Further reading:

Equine therapy: Not just horsing around

Children with special needs require physical literacy

5 tips to engage children with autism in active play

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