An Autistic Guide To Martial Arts

Hello folks, I think we can all agree that there is precious little more annoying than someone telling you how great exercise is when you’re struggling. Therefore, I decided to write a post about the benefits of exercise… kind of.

By no means do I think exercise is any sort of ‘miracle cure’, especially as a. no such thing exists, and b. you can’t ‘cure’ autism. What I do believe however, is that martial arts were incredibly helpful to me when I was working through a lot of very difficult things both related and unrelated to my ASD. I also know that lots of people either don’t want to try a martial art, are intimidated by the thought of them, or are reticent to join one as an adult. Therefore, I am going to do my very best impression of a pyramid-scheme victim / self-employed-business-owner-who-earns-a-six-figure-sum-while-promoting-a-genuinely-life-changing-product-that-is-the-new-must-have-for-summer, and attempt to convince you that martial arts are great examples of sports if you are autistic! (I’ll also throw in some tips from my 10/11 years on how to make it more autism friendly!)

* will be talking predominantly about karate as that is the martial art I have most experience in, but I have also dabbled in MMA and found it just as inclusive.

** Examples I will use are from my club back in London. If anyone is in the South East London area / Kent / Essex at a stretch, I highly recommend Hyo Gen Do as they have been exemplary and are incredibly disability friendly without it being the primary focus. They do kid classes as well as adult ones, and give a good balance of traditional karate, self-defence training and sport karate if that’s something you want to try. (Shout out to Sensei Steve and the whole squad!)

Firstly, let me get all of the obvious benefits out of the way: martial arts are a great way to meet new people and make friends; they teach you techniques of self-defence; and hitting something really hard (preferably a pad rather than a person) is a great form of stress relief. All of these are of course true, but I would say it goes slightly further than this when it comes to martial arts verses other sporting activities. However corny it might sound, when you are actively letting someone kick or punch millimetres away from your face, there is an implicit trust that I have yet to find in another sport. Not only will I let my karate friends kick me in the face, I will congratulate them if they manage to make gentle contact, as that is a skill not to be underestimated. Of course, this close contact isn’t something that happens until you are a little further along in your training (you won’t get kicked in the face when you are starting, nor if you just don’t want to at any point in your training), but I trust my friends enough that they won’t hurt me. It takes some getting used to, and there are some people that I have trained with that I was more reluctant to spar with, but that level of faith in another person to not let you down by smacking you in the face is unparalleled.

Of course there are accidents. It’s a martial art and people start at a variety of ages with a variety of sporting abilities and coordination levels. Once when doing a demonstration, I went to kick my friend in the head as she moved her head towards me, resulting in her biting my foot and me kicking her mouth. I’ve also received many a bruise, had countless blisters and blood-blisters (they’re about as fun as they sound), and pulled a muscle when being too ambitious with my techniques. Injuries are a reality of martial arts, but in 11 years I have never been seriously injured, nor have I ever wanted to stop because of an injury. Everyone is familiar with the pain felt when you accidentally kick an elbow, or you both punch and your fists meet in the middle. There is a camaraderie to be felt, not to mention your instructor will be well versed in first aid, and you will never be put in any serious danger in class. You will only ever be doing training exercises and techniques that are appropriate for your skill level, and you always retain the right to say no or to bow out if you are too overwhelmed.

This brings me to my first point about why I found it so beneficial as an autistic person. Karate gave me the opportunity to practise being in simulated physically confrontational situations, without any real danger. I get overwhelmed easily and struggle in new or unfamiliar situations. Being able to have ‘practise rounds’ helped me learn to stay calm under physically intense situations, as well as developing my ability to ‘think on my feet’. Because it’s simulated, everyone there is keeping an eye on each other to make sure that no one is going to get properly hurt and everyone is staying calm and focused. This goes double if they know you are autistic. My friends would always stop if they saw me start to get overwhelmed, because as fun as it is to train, it’s even more fun to not take a trip to the hospital afterwards. Practising punches, kicks, blocks, etc., over and over again becomes rhythmic. It acts as a form of stimming, except you are also practising and learning technique. Much to my surprise, when I tripped on my run with Riley (my dog) a few weeks ago, I fell into a perfect break fall, and rolled out again onto my feet. I didn’t do that consciously, I must have just practised it so many times that I did it automatically. And so all those hours throwing myself at the floor in both karate and MMA really paid off! Luckily only one person saw it, and she looked as surprised as I felt.

A lot of martial arts have some sort of grading system. Most people will be familiar with the different coloured belts, starting at white and progressing up to black. While the order of the other colours changes from place to place, the principle is the same. You get a higher grade when you become more skilled. And while there is a debate about the differing standards required between clubs to attain these belts, they do act as a good motivator for you. They are a physical symbol of your improvement, and so if you are the type of person who likes to see progress, this is a great way to do it.

With the variety of classes available, there is almost certainly some style that would suit you. Whether you want one that deals primarily with punching and kicking, i.e. karate, boxing, etc., or grappling, i.e. judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, etc., or a mix of the two, i.e. Taekwondo, MMA, etc., there is something out there. Some martial arts also deal more with weapons such as staffs, nun-chucks and more. A google search will help you find something that suits you. While the various styles have their own strengths and weaknesses, all will help with coordination, agility, stamina, precision and more.

Okay, so now we’ve covered that, how would one go about ensuring the sport and their autism can happily coexist? The good news is, it isn’t very hard and I have explained the three main areas:

1 – Sensory Issues

This is the part that I struggled with the most. Most martial arts are done barefoot, which can be a problem if the floor is a ‘bad’ texture. This can be easily remedied by wearing shoes. While socks are too slippery, shoes mean you won’t feel the floor. Trainers or plimsols work well, but there are special martial arts shoes with adapted soles to allow you to spin easily. Mentioning this to the Sensei before you start means that they will be aware of why you need them, and if they take issue with you wearing them, find another club. Don’t waste your time on a club that isn’t willing to accommodate you. There are plenty of others that will. The only drawback to wearing shoes is that you may need to be a little bit more careful that you don’t tread on a person’s feet or catch them with a kick.

Sound can also be an issue. In my experience, I found the noises of people shouting (or kiai-ing) to be quite difficult, especially if it was a busy class. When I was younger I basically put up with it until it pushed me over the edge and I would have to leave. Now, I simply wear ear defenders or ear plugs from the beginning. I have a pair of industrial ear defenders that I bought from the local hardware store for £7 which block out the majority of all noise. If these feel a little restrictive though, I have ear plugs which are moulded to my ear so that they don’t fall out with movement. These ear plugs are also much more discrete and don’t add to the width of my head, something that becomes increasingly important if your partner wants to practise distancing. When I was doing MMA, I would also wear a flat ear guard over them so that even if I was grappling, they would stay in place. Again, telling the instructor beforehand is courteous so that they are aware of what is going on. They may also be able to ask other students to tone down the shouts to make it a bit easier for you.

In terms of clothing, many martial arts will have a type of ‘uniform’, in the case of Karate it is the white suit known as a ‘gi’. These come in lots of different materials but to begin, you would never be expected to wear one, instead normal sports clothes would be expected, or something that you can exercise in. If you do choose to invest in a gi, making sure you touch the fabric before buying one can save you a huge fuss if you can’t tolerate the feel of the fabric. Unless you plan on competing, I suspect most half-decent clubs would be happy for you to wear whatever’s comfortable anyway. The other thing to mention is any protective equipment. I don’t mean COVID-19 masks, but rather hand mitts or other items. Sometimes they will have uncomfortable labels or seams, and my best advice is to look at the different options. Some of them have thumbs, some don’t, so just find one that you like.

I don’t have much advice for if the lights are bothering you as sunglasses aren’t a good idea, and short of carrying round every type of lightbulb that could have been used, there’s not always much you can do. What I would say however, is that if you are training in some sort of hall, there is almost always the option of facing another direction. I can get overwhelmed by too much movement, especially as I find bright white a difficult colour to have too much of in my vision. Therefore, I usually prefer to stand near the front so that I can’t see the people behind me, or to face a wall if I am working with a partner. If a light is flickering at one end of the room, I try to work at the other end. If there’s a weird breeze from the door that’s distracting me, I work away from the door. If there’s a person who’s shout I find excruciatingly grating, I work as far away from them as humanly possible. Sometimes it’s about finding small adjustments that make your life easier.

2 – Other Humans

Martial arts are communal. Therefore, there will be other people, many of whom you will not know, all training alongside you. Enquiring about whether the class is autism friendly or not beforehand will both help you decide if it’s somewhere you want to train, and let the instructor know that they might have to adapt their teaching style slightly to ensure you get the best training possible. They may already have experience teaching autistic people or people with other disabilities.

I also remember when a new, incredibly shy, guy joined our club and my Sensei asked if myself and my brother could work with him and try to make him feel a bit more comfortable. Neither my brother or I minded and that guy can now hit like a truck and is a brown belt. I was also “taken under the wing” of my now good friends, as I was younger, scared and undiagnosed. I’m now (I would say) very good friends with them, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with them and laughing at them for being old!

Of course, that isn’t to say that I got along with everyone, or indeed that I managed to go through my training without any drama. Some people are dicks, and sometimes you can be a dick in another person’s eyes. Either way, being around people both similar and dissimilar to you is good practise for your social skills. There’s such a wide range of people in martial arts that you will find those you get along with, and together you can tolerate the rest!

3 – Processing Time

If you’re anything like me, you work very hard to not let people know how difficult it is to be processing information at a generally acceptable speed. Stuff doesn’t just get absorbed into my brain: I have to actively think about it. That means that even if I have done a technique 100 times before, when my Sensei is telling us what we are going to practise, I need to mime it a couple of times to myself first.

The good news is, because there is always a risk of injury, the instructor will ensure that all instructions are given clearly and will most likely repeat them. You can always ask for them to be repeated as no respectable instructor would begrudge that, especially when the alternative is potential injury. I have asked for things to be repeated and I have a good amount of experience under my (literal) belt! There is no shame in asking for extra help or for someone to walk you through it slowly. If you don’t want to ask in front of the class, when people are working you can either have a look at what they’re doing to help you, or ask either the instructor or potentially a higher ranking student to help you out. Generally speaking people are friendly and it’s always nice to show someone how to do something!

In conclusion, I think everyone should try a martial art at least once in their life. If you haven’t been persuaded then that’s okay, I respect your position… even if I disagree. Just joking! Martial arts helped me a lot and it was probably the biggest thing I missed during the lockdown(s) as I couldn’t train with other people. I think they are a great option for autistic folk and so if anyone is looking for a new hobby, I recommend checking them out!


1 thought on “An Autistic Guide To Martial Arts”

  1. I loved this post. You did a great job laying out the benefits of karate and other martial arts.
    Martial arts (in the form of Tang Soo Do, mostly) was part of my life for several years. It didn’t click with me as well as it clearly did for you, but it was still generally a positive experience. And it helps my self-confidence to know I still recall some basic self-defense techniques. (The best way to deal with danger is still “don’t be in that situation in the first place” and “if you are, run away,” but if those two things fail, it helps to know what to do next.)

    Thanks for this! Maybe I’ll think about finding a school in my new area… 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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