This article was written by schoolteachers Kent MacLeod and Richard Tighe. The two are jiu-jitsu practitioners that run the International Secondary School in Tokyo, Japan. Since 2013 jiu-jitsu has been part of the school’s physical education and after school sports programming and has shown promise in assisting students with special needs.
Since beginning to coach jiu-jitsu at International Secondary School in Tokyo, Japan in 2013, we have seen interesting and encouraging evidence regarding the benefits of regular martial arts training for children with special needs, specifically autism. It has been noted that martial arts and other individual competitive sports have long been a place of refuge for student-athletes who don't feel comfortable with the atmosphere and dynamic presented within typical team sports like football, basketball or volleyball. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability affecting social and communication skills. Typically team sports do not allow for kids with autism to develop the communication and social skills they need to be successful team players. We have witnessed some very encouraging evidence first hand of how jiu-jitsu helps kids with autism have positive social sports experiences by facilitating development in these 5 key areas:
1. A Team of Individuals
One of the major challenges for children with Autism is being part of a team activity. Typically the social norms that are part of a team experience and the social cues that allow for effective communication in a group sporting activity cannot be understood by those who have the social difficulties associated with being on the spectrum. This can create a powerful sense of isolation for these children. Jiu jitsu provides this team atmosphere but in an individual setting. The child is part of a team in the greater sense of the academy or club but at the same time works as an individual, whether it is in drilling or rolling. The social cues required of team sports are not an issue for the child, while their experiences are celebrated by the team as a whole, whose support gives the individual a greater sense of being an active part of the community, no longer isolated by their condition.
2. Social Relationships
As mentioned above, the concept of social interaction is a real challenge to students on the spectrum. The inability to properly interpret non-verbal cues, tone, lack of eye contact and the rigid approach to dialogue makes it incredibly difficult for a child to build bonds and social relationships with others. Jiu-jitsu can build a common interest that is shared with others. This opens a bridge and foundation for children with Autism to build social relationships with others based around the common interest of the sport itself.
3. Self-Confidence is Self-Defence
This is true of all who study Jiu-jitsu but is especially true for children with autism. Children with autism face many challenges, not just in terms of social activity but also academics. They can be especially aware of these challenges, which can have a profound effect on their self-confidence. Jiu-Jitsu is a fantastic way to build confidence in children, especially those with autism. This confidence is the cornerstone to self-defence. When one is confident it shows in how they act and behave. In a school atmosphere, where bullying can be a major issue, the bully seeks out those students who look like easy targets. Unfortunately, students with autism tend to be seen as easy targets by bullies. However, the confidence that the child gains from their training and being part of the team shines through and bullies tend to shy away from them in favour of easier targets.
4. Sensory sensitivities, such as noise, light, clothing or food
Sensory overload is a common problem for children with autism. This can manifest in a variety of ways, whether it is an aversion to noise, dislike of bright lighting, inability to digest certain types of food or intense dislike for the smells associated with different things. This can create a real challenge for these children in everyday life, where the constant distractions can be almost too much for them to handle. Jiu-jitsu is a great way to assist these kids in learning to cope with difficult and uncomfortable situations. Through Jiu-jitsu they come into contact with constant challenges, whether it is escaping from a control position, sweeping an opponent or simply trying to figure out what to do next whilst under pressure. Learning to deal with these challenges and problem-solving can greatly increase the child’s capacity to deal with their own sensory challenges.
5. Communication Difficulties
Kids with autism have major problems with developing speech and understanding social language. They also struggle greatly with eye contact or the use of gestures in social contexts. Jiu-jitsu provides numerous chances for one on one social interaction with coaches and training partners in an open and accepting environment. BJJ is much more informal and casual when compared to other martial arts. Individual expression and an inquisitive mindset are not only accepted but encouraged. This is ideal for kids with autism.