The martial arts are everywhere. You can find references to them in movies, on the covers of magazines, in TV commercials, and most likely you have one in your neighborhood strip-mall.
Whether someone is looking for improved focus, expanded levels of conditioning, a newfound sense of purpose and self-confidence, or a healthy social environment to connect with, the benefits of martial arts are both well-known and extensive.
What is less well-known is how the benefits of martial arts training can improve the lives of people (and their families) with autism and special needs. If a person with special needs is looking to work on gross-motor or fine-motor skills, improve focus and attention, develop memory and cognition, or learn how to positively interact with others, he/she can definitely benefit from martial arts training. Oftentimes, people will benefit just as much from, if not more than, their non-special needs counterparts.
This focus on the benefits aimed at living an empowered and engaging life is what brings us to Taekwon-Do, specifically. The art of Taekwon-Do is uniquely suited to the developmental needs of people with special needs. Training in Taekwon-Do is a great therapeutic practice that can help with the physical and/or intellectual delays, disabilities, and challenges someone with special needs may be facing.
Created by a South Korean General named Choi Hong-Hi after World War II, Taekwon-Do took the best techniques, traditions, and moral teachings inherent in Korean culture and systematized them into what we know as the art of Taekwon-Do. Up until then, most martial arts practice was viewed through the lens of war and self-defense.
However, in the post-WWII reconstruction era of Korea, he understood that what the world needed at the time wasn’t more soldiers for the battlefield, but rather citizen-warriors dedicated to bettering their own lives as well as the lives of the people around them. He saw the opportunity to meld the moral and character components of living a good life with the discipline and physical teachings of the martial arts. He pioneered this in a way that had never been done before.
With this spirit, Taekwon-Do has lead the way in emphasizing the non-physical elements of training with as much importance as the physical elements. That means Taekwon-Do (and other arts that have since implemented their own versions of this concept) is perfectly suited to the special needs community. This focus on the two sides of training is what allows students of Taekwon-Do to grow and become their best selves while creating a more compassionate world.
Within the art of Taekwon-Do, we find the 5 Tenets of Taekwon-Do as well as The Student Oath. These building blocks are meant to be memorized and recited, but more importantly, to be absorbed and embodied by each student to the best of his/her ability. This is accomplished through the dynamic combination of the physical and mental found in each Taekwon-Do class or lesson.
The 5 TENETS of Taekwon-Do
- Indomitable Spirit
The Student Oath
I shall observe the tenets of Taekwon-Do
I shall respect the instructor and seniors
I shall never misuse Taekwon-Do
I shall be a champion of freedom and justice
I shall build a more peaceful world
By emphasizing these concepts of personal development, healthy integration into the community, and positive living, students have the opportunity to take all of these lessons with them when they step off of the mats. With the guidance of a qualified and compassionate instructor, any student has the opportunity to grow physically, mentally, and emotionally in very personal and individualized ways.
Take the initial lessons on Courtesy, for example, that students are presented in the beginning. From the moment a student steps onto the mats, he/she will learn (both through explanation and by repetition) about how/why/when we bow, when to say ‘Yes ma’am.’ or ‘Yes sir,’ as well as how to stand still and focus their attention. For special needs students, these lessons on courteous behavior will transfer to many other areas of life. They will also provide a strong foundation for their relationships with friends, family, and caregivers.
Then we have the lessons on Perseverance and Indomitable Spirit. They are presented through the physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges that come with training. By learning the various blocks, kicks, exercises, and memorized patterns within Taekwon-Do, a student will develop his/her physical skills as well as find within him/her an all-encompassing spirit of positivity. Everything from the vocabulary, the rules of discipline, and the physical techniques presented will provide opportunities to improve a student’s cognitive and physical functioning in both broad and specific ways.
Along this journey, students will succeed, and they will fail. This is an essential component of building the abilities and confidence of any student and is a positive part of every this journey of self-improvement. With a kind, understanding, and capable instructor, these challenges do not become debilitating, rather they become liberating and empowering. Students all learn how to accept and process challenges in a healthy and forward-moving way. For some students with special needs, this can be one of the toughest yet most important lessons for them to learn.
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No matter the type of goal a student is striving for the most important thing to learn is that he/she can face new challenges not with fear, but with passion and open-mindedness. Every time a new goal in training is achieved, a student will have added a new layer of self-confidence that was not there before. Unlike with purely intellectually based achievements (such as learning the alphabet), an achievement on the martial arts mats melds mind, body, and spirit. Thus the Taekwon-Do training a student receives delivers a much deeper and broader type of accomplishment, which also provides a stronger neuro-physical-intellectual connection that will translate over to many other areas of his/her life.
One of the most important elements to a training program in Taekwon-Do is the challenge-reward system that is fundamental to progressing in the art. This system is incredibly customizable for students of any ability and is one of the key ingredients in a successful program for any special needs student.
The curriculum is created with general benchmarks in mind but can be tailored to meet each student’s specific goals and needs. No matter where a student starts with his/her current abilities, he/she will be guided through the fundamentals of the art and move onto progressively more difficult challenges. As the student achieves various milestones of ability, progress is then recognized with stripes for the belt, certificates of achievement, new belts, and other reward-incentives particular to his/her situation. This positive reinforcement of desired behavior, performance, and growth truly connects with students as they receive tangible representations of all the hard work they have accomplished.
Seeing a special needs student go from not being able to stand still for more than one second to being able to stand quietly and with focus for 10 seconds can be a miraculous sight. Watching as a student who could not do a single pushup when he/she began eventually break boards with both hands can be inspiring like you cannot imagine. Martial arts training gives special needs students, their families, and other the other care-givers involved these opportunities and more.
If you’ve been looking for an empowering new activity for someone with special needs, consider martial arts as your next option. It can sometimes take a good deal of research and asking the right questions to find the right school/instructor/program. However, if you do find the right fit for your situation, it stands to be one of the best investments in time and energy that you could give yourself and your loved ones.
This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need