Autism and BJJ advice
Member Since: 3/18/09
Inspired by the video from Shoyoroll, I would like to share my personal experience with Autism in BJJ. I want to aim this at instructors. I can say with great confidence that you all have students on the spectrum in your class and would like to illuminate the difficulties and benefits of this disorder with you.
I was diagnosed two years ago at the age of 28 with Asperger's Syndrome and have been practicing Jiu Jitsu for roughly 9 months. Growing up was rough at times. I felt lonely and had difficulties making friends up until high school, I was open to bullying and often didn't know how to interact with people when approached. I have always felt disconnected – from myself and other people. I did karate for a few years and this helped me deal with bullies. Joined the HS wrestling team and was put through some hazing there too. Started Jiu-Jitsu after about 10 years away from martial arts and have once again made great leaps in personal growth and confidence. A bad ending to my marriage, losing my wife and daughter, I had to do something with myself. I started Jiu-Jitsu. I'm now in the best shape of my life, increased mind/body connection and I'm rebuilding confidence from a lifetime of failed relationships. Jiu-Jitsu saved me.
How do you go about recognizing a student on the Autism Spectrum?
To start – a student may exhibit a vacant stare and difficulty keeping eye contact. They may have a slight monotone to their voice and speak in a steady rhythm. They will not socialize very much with their peers and tend to be on the introverted side. They will also have a tendency for routine and rituals (consistent bowing on and off the mat, same gym bag and water bottle, shows up regularly at the same time, same rashguard/board shorts.)
Difficulties of being on the spectrum:
•Emotional outbursts or tendency to shut down when emotional. I have heard Autism is a result of weak connectivity in the right side of the brain. The part responsible for emotions and sensing yourself. This will be a theme throughout. Due to a weak connection we have difficulties sensing our bodies and emotional state. We are overwhelmed by emotion, we do not lack it.
•Depression, substance abuse and self esteem problems. We live a very lonely life, some kids have been targeted by their peers and bullied. There is a lot of difficulty connecting to other people. Relationships are difficult for us to maintain and we live a life of social failing. Some tend to cope with drugs and alcohol as a way to block out intense emotion and fit in socially.
•Dislike physical contact/ sensory issues. We are hypersensitive to touch and our environment. Florescent lights and lots of noise tend to be a problem and may trigger meltdowns/shutdowns. We pick up visual details, smells, sounds and textures with great intensity that other students may not notice. This can be distracting and overwhelming. We don't get the same reward from human contact as other people and may shy away from touch.
•Difficulty sensing our bodies. This can lead to clumsiness and trouble engaging motor units in our body. Two left feet as some people say. We also have a tendency to over-exert ourselves and over train. Sometimes we do not realize we are being overly intense while sparring and may come off as aggressive. We are very slow to pick up movement patterns but it is possible to overcome.
•Pattern recognition skills / systemized + mechanical thinking. We have a very good idea of how techniques are applied by visual instruction. We see levers, spirals and patterns in Jiu-Jitsu much easier than other students. We can recognize combinations and flows with ease. We see movements occurring in many different positions (back-stepping while passing, back-step to kimura, pendulum motions to sweep or escape.) Emphasize this when teaching a student on the spectrum.
•Hyper-flexibility. Our un-athletic “soft” bodies can be difficult to kimura or contort in other ways. The weak mind/body connection is actually a benefit in this way. This makes us difficult to catch in certain subs or holds.
•Sensitivity to pressure. We can be very sensitive to touch and this benefits us in finding space by feeling pressure on our bodies or lack of pressure. This helps us maintain positional control and escapes. A pressure focused Jiu-Jitsu game is probably the best approach for students on the spectrum.
•Hyper focused and passionate. A student on the spectrum who has walked through the doors of your academy on his/her own already loves Jiu-Jitsu. They probably spend hours reading history, studying techniques and philosophies, they have favorite practitioners and study their game intensely, they spend hours on YouTube watching competition footage and highlights. Give them the opportunity to speak and they wont shut up about Jiu-Jitsu. Encourage this, it will help them build friendships in the academy. The academy is one of the few places they can geek out about Jiu-Jitsu.
Teaching students on the spectrum:
•Concepts and philosophies vs mechanics and technique. We are already strong in recognizing mechanics and technique. We learn to apply Jiu-Jitsu by understanding concepts of control and pressure vs just seeing a position. Philosophies such as “keep it playful” go a long way in our journey.
•Be clear of your expectations and unspoken rules of the academy. We do not pick these things up very well on our own and sometimes have to be told things other students don't. “please and thank you, hello and goodbye.” DO NOT GREENLIGHT A STUDENT ON THE SPECTRUM!! This will not work and will only cause us to shut down. I cannot emphasize enough. We need to be told when we fuck up!
•Open one on one dialog. We do not function very well in groups. We tend to speak in essays and paragraphs. (Can you tell?? lol) Allow us time to process instructions and express ourselves. We may have questions other students don't think to ask and contribute to the class in our own way.
•Role playing works well for us. “George has good control, you can spar with him.” This works by adding praise and displaying expectations of us. We have trouble recognizing new/sensitive students and this encourages them to exercise control in a positive manner. When given a role to play we are given a rule set for social interaction. This helps build confidence and gives us more tools for socializing.
•Reinforce routine/rituals. If class will be different from the usual, give them a heads up. Surprises tend to confuse us and may cause shutdown. Explain to them how promotions work in the academy so they know what to expect.
•Encourage participation. We do not know how or when to “insert” ourselves in social situations. We would love to be more active in the academy but simply don't know how to ask if we can help with certain things. (running drills, wiping down the mats, cleaning the restrooms).