Sensei Shelby McEachern was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a young girl and has done martial arts for almost 11 years. During her five years at Stronger You, she has discovered how she learns best with her disability. She has also taught kids classes because being around kids makes her smile. She has a casual job giving out food samples in grocery stores across Ottawa and has recently graduated from Algonquin College with a Library and Information Technician Diploma.
In her words:
Sometimes in school, if the classroom was too noisy, I would have a hard time concentrating on my classwork. Due to the noise, I would go to the Resource Room to work. Although I am sensitive to noises, I have gotten better at tuning them out. However, improvements can still be made. Making friends was tough for me due to my lack of proper social skills. However, that did not matter much by the time I reached college or set foot into Stronger You. At both Algonquin College and Stronger You, people had the patience for me and accepted me as I am.
Martial Arts has helped me with my Asperger’s because of the breathing component. It was a way for me to relax if I had a stressful day at school or in the social world in general. While practicing karate, I could forget everything that happened that day.
Sensei Shelby has been kind enough to share with us some tips for instructors who may have students with Asperger’s Syndrome. She speaks from her karate experiences, and she believes that these tips may help those with Asperger’s Syndrome learn martial arts. She also believes that these tips may help martial arts instructors as well.
In Sensei Shelby’s words:
(1) Break up the katas in smaller chunks. It may seem like it’s a thing you would do with a little kid. But even at age 24, I find if I do not learn a new kata in chunks, I do get lost and confused, and when I do not understand something (or anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome or the Autism Spectrum in general), I will get anxious. So it’s best to break up a new kata in chunks to keep their mind at ease until they have got the general idea of the kata down.
(2) If there are enough Senseis to go around, try teaching them one-on-one. From experience, if I am in a group setting when we break off into groups, I find if I cannot keep up with everyone else, then I get frustrated. So the one-on-one instruction helps keep me calm and helps me feel comfortable going at my pace.
(3) The instructor limiting your questions and comments during general class time isn’t a bad thing. Janet Renshi limits my questions and comments during class to two. She limits my questions and comments to two during class time so that I do not take up everyone’s learning time and so that I can give others a chance to ask questions. This is good because then it helps me to focus on whether the question/comment is important enough to count toward my two questions/comments quota. During a water break, before class, or after class, this rule doesn’t apply. So during those times, I can ask questions without using my quota. It’s a great thing and has helped me think what is important to get off my chest and what isn’t.
(4) If they cannot do exercises (such as push-ups), modify it so that they do not struggle with it. For the longest while, I did push ups on the wall because I had trouble doing regular push ups. This is due to a weak core muscle I have due to having Asperger’s. So the wall push ups help me strengthen my core muscle enough to do the push-ups on my knees. Due to the wall push ups helping with that, I now do push-ups on my knees. Slow and steady wins the race as they say. One day, I will hopefully be able to do regular push-ups. So if someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is struggling with an exercise, that doesn’t mean they are not trying their best. It means, for the time being, the exercise is difficult for them, and they need it modified to build up their strength to do the regular exercise eventually.
(5) Don’t explain the kata to them, just do it with them slowly or show it to them. Explanations of kata movements and then having me do it only goes in one ear and out the other. If you show the movement and then have me do it or have me do it with you slowly, then it will soak in quicker. It helps us get the idea of what’s going on in the kata.
I hope these tips were very helpful for anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome who was planning to start karate and for instructors who may have students with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Thank you to Sensei Shelby for educating us and sharing her experiences of learning martial arts with Asperger’s Syndrome.