Aikido and Autism

by Dwight & Sheila Overmoyer

Our son, Austin has been attending the Rochester Aikido Kokikai class for the past two years. Austin has enjoyed learning a variety of Aikido skills and techniques, he has grown within its learning environment and has accomplished the skills for both the white and yellow belts.

Austin is 9-years old. He is what's known in the medical and educational fields as a high-functioning child with autism.

Autism is a life-long, developmental disorder. Autism affects the cognitive processes of an individual - which is displayed as limited social language and organizational skills. It is difficult for an individual with autism to discriminate cues or stimuli. Learning, both academically and socially, is a profound challenge. Many educational institutions have developed successful programs in teaching autistic children. Public school districts use modified curriculum/grade level objectives in educating autistic children.

Dispite the profound impact that autism has on the individual and family members, children with autism have many strengths, too. Many are hyperlexic, i.e. advanced reading skills. Others have powerful memory and mathematic skills. In fact, paradoxically, most high-functioning children with autism appear normal and are quite intelligent.

Many autistic children grow up to be successful individuals in society.

Becoming involved in local organizations is probably one of the best opportunites for children with autism to experience. One shining example of an organization that has offered Austin tremendous opportunites for personal growth is the Rochester Aikido Kokikai organization.

The impact that Aikido has had on Austin has been tremendous! Three vital areas in Aikido that has helped Austin in personal growth has been through structure, repetition and socal interaction.

Aikido creates a learning environment of structure and support. Aikido also offers a high degree of structured physical activity which is critical in the development of autistic children and with all children in general.

By learning tasks through a structured environment, Austin has developed a higher level of task retention and mental focus. Developing mental focus through structure allows Austin to improve his critical listening skills by learning the verbal cues of his Sensei. Through Austin's Sensei's instructions, Austin has improved his Aikido skills and has been able to build on new skill objectives.

Repetition with positive reinforcement at Aikido has also increased Austin's concentration and focus on perfecting tasks and skills during class. Each task requires practice and repetition as part of the learning process. Austin interacts with upper-belt students to practice the Aikido skills of that day. This interaction involves physical activity, verbalization and repetition of a task - all vital attributes of successful learning.

Austin practices the tasks and skills with his class partners and with the careful instructions from his Sensei, Austin's concentration of perfecting the given task has increased.

Formal testing in Aikido involves discriminating listening and direction from the Sensei. Austin has had successful opportunities to pass through belt levels and receive the immediate reward of applause from his peers and observing parents. This is a tremendous testing activity that raises Austin's self-confidence and self-esteem, which is vital in preparing him for future challenges in the outside world.

By involving Austin with his classmates in practicing Aikido tasks, the social success dimension now comes to focus.

Taking turns to perform a task, listening to instructions from his Sensei, the emphasis on safety with others, the enjoyment of working on Aikido skills with classmates and the fun of playing competitive games after a rigorous class are all vital character building blocks for any child in a social setting.

Austin has applied the principles of Aikido outside of class - in terms of higher self esteem, respect for others, taking turns, appropriate social behavior and sharing - which are all important character traits in society.

Austin looks forward to his Aikido class every week. He has developed both in form and character since he started attending class. Aikido has served itself beyond the walls of its classroom with Austin. The tremendous support, companionship and learning that Austin has experienced through Aikido will be a lifelong influence to his development.

You can contact Dwight and Sheila at dwight@hairjam.com.

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