Autism and the Martial Arts

DSC 5646 Version 3 1024x680 Autism and the Martial Arts

April is Autism Awareness Month. For her fifth degree Black Belt test, Shihan Dai Nancy Donahue wrote

and presented a research paper specifically on the effect of the martial arts on children with autism

spectrum disorder (ASD). While it comes as no surprise that the martial arts benefits the physical,

mental, and emotional health of all individuals, the discipline is particularly well-suited for children with



Autistic behavior is often characterized by three things: 1) absence or severe deficiency in speech,

2) a lack of connection to – or impulse to communicate with other human beings; lack of contact, and 3)

a narrow range of interest and preoccupation coupled with the need for sameness in routine and

environment. Children with ASD do not typically get much physical exercise and are often left out of

group sports and physical education classes in some schools. The lack of eye contact and difficulty

understanding social cues do not lend themselves easily to group activities.


One theory as to why the martial arts are particularly beneficial to children with ASD is the concept that

goals are attained as an individual, and not as part of a group. Thus, peer acceptance is not a

requirement. Then there is the consideration of consistency in routine that occurs throughout class and

in the form of kata. Instruction is group oriented, routine activities are highly structured, and

instructional techniques are centered on learning through imitation. Additionally, the martial arts serve

as a method to reduce children’s levels of unproductive activity through rigorous physical exercise.

Physical and emotional benefits are commonly associated with martial arts training. Research has shown

that there is also a correlation between martial arts training and improved cognitive ability. Dr. John J

Ratey of Harvard Medical School states, “Exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood,

vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” Therefore, the emotional stability provided in the

discipline of the martial arts lends nicely to the behavioral problems that are sometimes observed in

people with ASD.


At U.S. Budokai Karate, we are very welcoming of all ages and ability levels, disability or handicap. Please contact our office with any questions or to schedule an introductory lesson!