Practicing martial arts is great for children in general, but what if your child is autistic? Still, there is some concern about whether martial arts are safe for autistic kids. The answer may surprise you.
Martial arts are a safe, structured activity for autistic kids that can help them: manage stereotypic behavior; improve their socializing skills; improve focus; stay in shape; and lastly, learn to defend themselves. Martial arts are usually a better sports choice for autistic kids than team sports.
So, what is it about martial arts that make them such a great, safe choice for autistic kids? Keep reading to learn more about the research done on how martial arts can help autistic kids.
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Autistic Kids Can Practice Martial Arts
While autistic children have historically been left on the sidelines when it comes to sports, this is something that is slowly changing. More and more, autistic children are gravitating towards and being empowered by sports. (Source: Sports Illustrated)
Like all kids, autistic kids can benefit from practicing martial arts. Martial arts can offer the following advantages for kids:
- It increases confidence in children and can bolster their self-esteem.
- It teaches strong morals and values.
- It improves a child’s overall athletic ability and can make them more resilient against illness.
Whether kids have autism or not, martial arts can be a great way for them to participate in a sport that focuses more on self-improvement and discipline than it does on team building. Individualized sports like these are usually preferred by some autistic kids who don’t like to be dependent on other people or prefer to be in control of situations.
Martial Arts Are Safe for Autistic Kids
Compared to other team sports that are popular among kids, like football and hockey, martial arts are among the safest sports a kid can pursue. Even though martial arts are focused on sparring and combat, almost all this sparring is simulated for the sake of practice, and very little real fighting goes on in martial arts training.
Instead, those who practice martial arts focus on learning controlled, repetitive movements that can be called on in self-defense scenarios. Martial arts do involve some fighting, but by the time autistic kids advance to this level of training, they will have tight control over their abilities in a sparring match.
Along with teaching the correct discipline to go along with a combat-oriented sport, martial arts centers are usually good about using protective gear during sparring, such as mouth guards, soft helmets, and other padding. Even if there is violent contact during a sparring match, the chances of getting injured are minimal.
Another great piece of equipment for autistic kids and teens is a freestanding heavy bag. They can reset their emotions and destress while practicing what they learned in class. I recommend for all kids, teens, and moms this heavy bag that can be found on Amazon.
Martial arts classes themselves are safe for autistic kids, but taking a martial art can also help make autistic kids safer in general. Autistic kids are one of the largest demographics that are vulnerable to bullying (Read this article to learn more about how we’ve supported our special needs son.).
Knowing martial arts increases a kid’s self-esteem and makes them more impervious to bullying on a mental level. It also gives them the tools to fight back if they are physically bullied.
Martial Arts and Stereotypy in Autistic Kids
Some of the most promising research relating martial arts to autistic kids is in the ability of martial arts to reduce stereotypy. (Source: Psychology Today) Stereotypy is a series of repetitive behaviors and movement patterns that are repeated as a tic. In autistic kids, stereotypy usually presents as stimming or physical/verbal tics that autistic kids repeat as a means of sensory or cognitive regulation.
Here are a few examples of stereotypy in autistic kids:
- Self-caressing the body
- Hair twirling
- Marching in place
- Crossing and uncrossing the legs
- Bouncing a leg under the table or desk
Because martial arts focus on repetitive motor skills, they can act as a good outlet for autistic kids to positively express their scripted, stereotypic behaviors. When given a positive outlet for stimming in martial arts, science has shown children are less likely to exhibit negative stimming behaviors elsewhere. This is partially due to the stress released by participating in a sport.
Martial Arts and Socializing in Autistic Kids
Martial arts can be helpful for autistic kids when it comes to managing their autistic symptoms, but it can also help them with social skills. Historically, autistic kids have had difficulties socializing on traditional sports teams, which involve a lot of nonverbal communication, bonding activities, and focus on interpersonal cooperation.
Autistic kids tend to be nonconventional loners that shy away from traditional group activities. This can make social integration difficult. Luckily, there are several individualized sports such as martial arts that allow those who practice them to focus on their own advancement rather than the advancement of a team. These sports are typically preferred by autistic individuals, who can excel in them over time.
Despite the focus on individual advancement in martial arts, martial arts still allow autistic kids to socialize within the context of a niche special interest. This can be an easier way for autistic kids to interact than in more generalized activities. Since martial arts demand social interaction through sparring and pair practice, it can be a good place for shy autistic kids to get some social practice.
Martial Arts and Cognition in Autistic Kids
Martial arts also help autistic kids improve issues with cognition. As a neurological disorder, autism affects a child’s cognitive ability to focus since their brains place most incoming sensory information on the same priority level. Autism also has a negative effect on sensorimotor skills, which can lead to bad posture and clumsiness.
- Self-regulation (both mental and emotional)
- Postural control
- General cognitive function
Not only is it safe for autistic kids to practice martial arts, doing so can offer them benefits in just about every area of their life.
Martial Arts and Fitness for Autistic Kids
Martial arts offer many mental and emotional benefits for autistic kids, but they also offer them physical benefits. One challenge that parents and mentors of autistic kids face is that autistic children tend to gravitate towards solitary, sedentary activities. Over-indulging in these activities as an autistic child (such as video games) can lead to childhood obesity and social isolation.
This, in turn, can set autistic kids up for a lifetime of health problems related to excess weight and poor muscle tone. Excess weight and lack of athletic ability are often triggers for bullying from peers and can erode a child’s self-esteem over time.
The type of exercise that kids can get in martial arts has been shown to help autistic children exhibit less impulsive and aggressive tendencies. Exercise can also help by reducing anxiety and depression, both of which are serious problems for autistic kids and adults alike. (Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America)
Martial arts are also great fitness activities for both strength and cardiovascular health. Joining a martial art can encourage autistic kids to pursue other healthy athletic activities, too, ultimately leading them to live a healthier lifestyle overall.
Martial Arts Are a Great Option for Autistic Kids
Finding a sport that autistic kids will both excel at and enjoy can be difficult due to the physical, mental, and emotional challenges that come with having autism spectrum disorder. But martial arts are a good choice because they incorporate activities that help autistic kids improve their autistic symptoms on every level.