Taekwondo and Autism: An Unsung Hero

autism and taekwandoIt was during Taylor’s third grade year that he finally found his words to really express himself.

His sentences were still broken and not perfect, but he was finally able to articulate what was causing him happiness, curiosity and even more importantly, distress.

It was around this time that I decided to place him in karate. I had been talking to friend of mine who’s son was taking Taekwondo and she spoke of how great the instructor was and that she really it thought would be really good for Taylor.

Well, I have to admit, I was very reluctant at first. I took Taekwondo when I was kid and I knew how it went. Those instructors are serious and do not take lightly to disrespect or kids that can’t pay attention. The instructors yell loudly, whether it is during a kick, a punch or just to get the kids to stand at attention. The students also yell so there was that, too.

A classroom of people yelling? This was my biggest concern.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it when I took it, but was this for Taylor?

Gymnastic sure as hell didn’t work for him, so why not? Let’s try this out.

My first step, as you may have already guessed, was to sit down with the owner and instructor of the school, Mr. Smith. I sat in his office and explained to him that Taylor had high functioning autism and was just beginning to talk in full sentences. Basically, I was trying to say, without saying it, “Please be nice to him.”

I told Mr. Smith that Taylor may only last a month, and asked if he would allow him to do just a trial run before signing on for longer. When we tried gymnastics, Taylor only lasted for a total of 5 classes. UHG! I was really hoping for him to make it at least a month, maybe two?

“My goal for Taylor was to learn to listen to people. To take verbal instructions.”

I explained to Mr. Smith that I did not care if Taylor ever made it past a white belt because that wasn’t the reason I was signing him up. My goal for Taylor was to learn to listen to people. To take verbal instructions. I also believed Taekwondo would help him with his fine and gross motor skills as well.

At this point in Taylor’s life, he was still struggling with handling too many things at once. If you talked to him, he could not look at you. In fact, he had to walk around while you talked to him so he could fully process what you were saying. He simply could not do both at the same time. Cute when he was four, not so much when he was nine.

“If you can teach that kid to stand still while someone is talking to him, it is worth every dime,” I told Mr. Smith.

He assured me that he could do that for Taylor and so began Taekwondo.

It wasn’t long before my middle son, Brendan, wanted to join Taylor on the karate floor. At first I was hesitant. Brendan was in ALL the sports and I wanted Taylor to have his “thing”, but I saw that Brendan watched and studied every class that his brother went to. I finally relented and let Brendan do the free class one night with Taylor. When Brendan proceeded to shout out all the tenets and already knew half the form, I couldn’t say no.

I think Brendan doing Taekwondo with Taylor was huge in keeping Taylor focused and involved. Taylor is the older brother and he wanted to show Brendan what he knew. Brendan also helped keep Taylor focused in class and out of trouble.

One particular day I noticed that Mr. Smith was really having a time trying to get Taylor to pay attention. “TAYLOR!, TAYLOR!” was all I heard during most of the class. As I watched, I noticed that Taylor kept looking upwards at the ceiling.

Mr. Smith yelled again, “TAYLOR!” and then Taylor snapped back to attention only to look upwards again a few short minutes later. He was clearly not paying attention. I looked up at the ceiling to try and determine what was so interesting and realized what the problem was.

White Noise.

After class, I pulled Mr. Smith aside and told him what I thought the problem was that day with Taylor. It was the overhead fluorescent lights.

The next class, Taylor was standing on the front row at the beginning of class, once again looking up at the ceiling.

This time, instead of trying to get his attention, Mr. Smith asked “Taylor, what is it? Do you have a question?”

Taylor answered, “What is that noise?”

Mr. Smith explained to him that the lights overhead made a buzzing sound.

Yes! And that was that. Taylor no longer looked up. The distraction was no longer a distraction. Taylor still heard it, but now he knew what it was. Just one question and Taylor’s world made sense again.

We adults learned a great lesson that day, too. What may seem like a behavior problem, could really be something else entirely and the solution may be as simple as observing the child. Really watch and see. Are they clearly ignoring you or could it be something else?

autism black belt

Taylor and Brendan continued Taekwondo for the next three years and became black belts. While Taylor would never hurt a thing, the discipline he learned, the ability to “listen and do” simultaneously, far exceeded any medal he would win in a tournament. Taekwondo, for Taylor, went above and beyond all my expectations and I am forever grateful to Mr. Smith, Mrs. Duke and the other instructors that pushed Taylor and believed that he was capable.

autism black belt taekwandoThere are many stories I could tell of just this experience, some hilarious and some mortifying (for me mostly) but the bottom line is that Taekwondo would be one experience in a long line of life experiences that would help progress Taylor to where he is today.


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