Karate as therapy

Martial arts therapy for children with disabilities. Spectrum Magazine. Full copy follows the jpg of the opener. Copy appears as it was sent to the editor.

karate martial arts autism therapy

HED: Karate Kids

DEK: Martial arts put a new twist on therapy.

by Dave Gerardi

Ben Asta is having a difficult day. The Christmas holiday lights on all the neighborhood houses--the flashing, blinking, sparkling bulbs--are overloading his senses. Once at class, however, his focus sharpens. He is on-task, verbal and attentive.

Ben, now 8, was diagnosed with autism at 4. He began these sessions about six months after the diagnosis. His improvement has been so dramatic, he is no longer in speech or physical therapy, and his IQ values jumped 24 points in two years.

At first, he had short, 20-minute, one-on-one segments in a back room. Four months later, he was in full classes with the rest of the kids.

This is not a class for autistic children. There is no division between special needs and neurotypical kids. The name on the sign outside the door is not a doctor's or therapist's. It reads Tiger Schulmann, and this is a karate class run by Master Instructor David Tirelli.

Fifteen years ago, Tirelli (a fourth degree sensei and fourth degree black belt) started working with a Down Syndrome child named Raymond. He was immediately drawn to him. "I could be bummed out but then I would see Raymond, the happiest guy I ever saw in my life. I loved training with him." Since then, Tirelli has been incorporating special needs children into his regular classes.

"It's the best thing we could've done for Ethan," say his parents, Dr. Mitch and Liane Vogel. Ethan has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). He began taking karate at age 3 and now, at 9, is helping lead the class with Tirelli.

New students will often begin with private sessions, but Tirelli tries to get them on the mat with neurotypical kids as soon as possible. "My son had attention deficit disorder. He hated going into the 'special' class," he explains. The 'regular' classes (called 'core classes' at Tiger Schulmann's Karate) give special needs kids confidence, Tirelli says. "They want to be with everyone else." The carry-over benefit is to the other kids in the class. "Kids are scared of people who are different," Tirelli says. "Now they?re working side by side with autistic, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome kids. It?s a great atmosphere for everybody rather than having one class for autistic kids where everybody feels different." On rare occasions when a student makes a derogatory remark towards another, Tirelli is quick to intervene. Karen Asta, Ben's mom, recalls one incident, "Sensei Tirelli said, 'In school, we are a team, and we support our teammates. We don't make nasty comments.'"

The use of martial arts as a form of therapy has some scientific basis thanks to Dr. Matthew Morand, a school psychologist at both Long Beach High School, N.Y., and at NIKE, the alternative school in the same school district. He completed his dissertation for the Department of Psychology at Hofstra University with a study called "The Effects of Martial Arts on the Behavior of Non-medicated Boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder."

"We saw a very significant decrease in maladaptive behaviors and a very big increase in adaptive behaviors such as academic performance," Morand says. During the 12-week study, one group of boys participated in a martial arts intervention program, another group participated in an exercise program, and the third (the control group) had no intervention. School teachers filled out a behavior checklist on each child before and during the experiment. The boys in the martial arts group showed substantial increase in academic performance and homework completion and substantial decrease in the number of classroom rules broken and inappropriate call outs. Furthermore, the improvements made by the boys in the martial arts group surpassed those made by the boys in the exercise program.

Martial arts are more effective than simple exercise, Morand says, because it emphasizes multi-tasking. Tiger Schulmann?s Karate (all the boys in the martial arts group in the study attended TSK classes) begins by teaching children a jab punch. "They?ll teach a jab punch, a cross punch and a kick. Then they?ll teach them how to combine those things," Morand explains. "They teach children to sit in a certain position--fists on hips, knees on the ground--kids try to move around, but the sensei reminds them to sit in the proper position." The boys in the martial arts group, Morand adds, were utilizing the skills and behaviors they were learning in the martial arts in the classroom as well. Kids weren?t jumping out of their seats. They were paying attention.

Why wasn't garden-variety teacher-directed discipline working where the senseis' techniques were? Morand suggests it's simply that the kids are having a good time doing karate.

It's not just Tiger Schulmann's own hybrid brand of karate (Tirelli breaks it down as a combination of punches, muay thai kickboxing, wrestling takedowns and grappling jiu jitsu) that has proven success with special needs children. The father of Kioto Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Francisco Mansor, has found success teaching students with disabilities.

Mansor is one of only six people in the world outside of the Gracie family to have received a professor's diploma from Jiu Jitsu Grand Master Helio Gracie. From his headquarters in Port Jefferson, N.Y., Mansor teaches his own style of jiu jitsu which he originally developed for 'normal' adults and children. As he began to include special needs children in his classes, he realized the motor coordination and social aspects of martial arts had a positive effect. Mansor's most remarkable student is a boy who became blind at 14. He began studying jiu jitsu to combat depression and now has a black belt. "He can find you anywhere in the room," Mansor says smiling. Another student was non-verbal except for a few short phrases. In class, he opened up and spoke, Mansor says. One year later, the boy took part in a tournament.

Steven Gargan enrolled his son, Michael, nearly two years ago in Grand Master Mansor's school. "Michael was having some problems at school with kids bullying him," Gargan explains. "This was a way of giving him more self-esteem to stand up for himself." The 14-year-old was diagnosed with autism at 18 months. Jiu jitsu "is a hands-on type of thing where kids get used to physically grappling," adds Gargan, who spends approximately $70 a month for 8 classes. "Physical contact is good for children like Michael." Gargan says the changes in Michael are evident from his martial arts training: he has more confidence and is not as "defeatist" as he once was. Michael participated in his first tournament a year into training. His father likes the real-life preparation in tournament-style competition. "The teacher may have trained you and showed you what to do, but when you?re on the mat, it?s you against somebody else," he says. "Nobody?s there to say, 'I'll step in now and fight for you.' At some point and time in your life, you have to learn to do things for yourself."

Michigan-based Martial Arts Therapy, Inc., runs classes specifically geared for physically or developmentally disabled people. After years working with people with chronic long term injuries, Instructor and Co-founder David Reicher (along with co-founders David Roer and Palma C. Baker) started Martial Arts Therapy, Inc., as a way to inject fun into normally tedious therapy. Reicher, who has studied 15 years of kung fu, says kids are especially focused during classes partly because of Hollywood and video games. It keeps their interest.

He begins by setting very small goals and building those up incrementally. An instructor, he says, must find something each child does well "and capitalize on that." It may be as simple as lining up (the first part of every class). Reicher gives leadership roles to the 'veteran' kids. Their job is to lead by example.

Reicher used to draw a big circle on the mat around Nicholas, a student. "If you stay within this circle, you?re doing a great job," he would say. Today, he doesn't need the circle anymore. He stands his place in line.

The concentration on small goals keeps things positive. But that doesn't mean there's no adversity. "Kids know a sugar-coated program when they see it," says Reicher, who teaches a form of kung fu that emphasizes movement. Students who don't move get hit with a foam pad. "It?s not done in a mean way, but if it were an 'everybody wins' scenario, it wouldn?t work. It can?t be too easy. It has to be challenging."

Unlike Tirelli's or Mansor's schools where parents are kept off the mat and the instructor is the central disciplinarian, parent interaction is very involved in Reicher's classes. "Sometimes I switch the kids around with different parents. It gets rid of a lot of parent-child behaviors. It helps them socialize with different people and lets parents work with different kids."

Tirelli uses a shadow, someone there specifically for a particular child on the mat. Sometimes it will be the parent, but it is just as often an assistant at the karate school or a community service-oriented high-schooler. "We have one kid, Adam, who likes his socks," Tirelli says. "When he?s not listening, we take his socks and give them back to him as rewards. He also likes tape, so we give him tape to help him focus. Did I figure that out? No, my assistant did."

Tirelli keeps a close eye on the shadow/student relationship. Children, he says, can sense people who want to be with them and those who don?t. "If a child is working with someone who doesn?t want to be there, I quickly switch them out. You have to want to work with the child. It can't be about money or doing community service. It has to be about that child."

Skills and behaviors learned in martial arts therapy are carried over to other facets of life, Reicher says. Autistic children, for example, are more willing to follow directions and have a longer attention span. Martial arts utilize (sometimes long) sequences of moves which these children practice and practice until they memorize them. This is helpful when performing sequences of action at home, such as household chores.

The key is to begin with small expectations, Tirelli adds. These grow into big expectations. "Every class is a little bit more, a little bit more." Success doesn't happen with one class. The process takes time, he says, because quick achievements don?t last. "I don?t care what kind of person you are, everyone does better in a disciplined atmosphere. I give them goals. I?ll have them punch a heavy bag. It might be a horrible punch, but I?m just happy they?re taking their hand from point A to point B. That might be my first goal for them. They feel good about themselves because they achieved a goal. It builds confidence."

The goals will vary depending on the child. Some autistic children need to be hugged or need to feel pressure on their bodies. One parent told Tirelli she had to lay on top of her son sometimes. Tirelli decided to teach him grappling, an eastern martial art similar to wrestling. "I don?t teach choke holds, I teach what?s called position grappling. I teach him how to position his body. We?ve built from that and now he?s doing kickboxing."

Tirelli keeps the atmosphere positive. He gives a lot of praise, not just to his special needs students but to everyone. If someone is having a bad day, "then we say, 'That?s enough,' and get them off the mat. We don?t want any negativity. There is no yelling, no put-downs," he explains. He also spends time with parents afterward. "I?ll bring the parents into my office and they think I?m throwing the kid out of the school. They?re so used to negativity, because people don?t know how to work with these kids. For some parents, this is the first time they?ve heard praise." Tirelli focuses on the good things the child did that day and doesn't dwell on the negative. "They go home proud of their child."

Tirelli's Hackensack, N.J., school (he is moving to the soon-to-be-finished, state-of-the-art TSK headquarters/training facility in a few months in Elmwood Park, N.J.) also handles a lot of AD/HD children. "A child learns by watching, listening and then doing. It?s a disciplined mat, meaning when I?m explaining a punch or a kick or a move, I have them take a knee. Hands on hips, eyes on me. I explain why that?s so important. When we watch, we learn." One student, Kyle, has tremendous trouble focusing; he can't stop talking. Tirelli uses praise as a reward to keep Kyle's attention. After a while, he says, the children will become "self-disciplined and proud of themselves. They?re happy and want that feeling again."

Tirelli has learned from his students as well. When he first opened up the school, he answered the phones in addition to teaching. "I was all over the place," he recalls. "I used to go into my office, answer the phone and scream at everybody." Joseph, an autistic student, loved to imitate his sensei. One day, he ran into Tirelli's office, picked up the phone and started pointing to all the students and screaming. "It helped me be a better instructor," Tirelli says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, that?s what I?m doing?' I felt like such a jerk." Joseph went on to earn a black belt.

Martial arts have even changed Karen Asta's view of her own child. "I think I put more limits on Ben than Sensei Tirelli," she says. Shortly after Ben began the program, Tirelli had talked to Asta about various goals. One of the long-term ones was becoming a black belt. "That wasn't anywhere near my list of goals," Asta recalls. "But Sensei Tirelli said, 'Why not? Why not let Ben set his own limits?'"

The greatest benefit, Asta explains, may not be the motor coordination or even the social improvements. Karate class is more than that. It's a place where Ben can come and just be a kid.

Dave Gerardi, writer/filmmaker for hire