Jonathan Victory: Aspergers Syndrome & Martial Arts

Martial arts by patrisyu

Jonathan Victory shares his positive experiences of Martial Arts as someone with Aspergers Syndrome. Read and comment below!

Bruce Lee famously advised people to “Be Like Water”, comparing attributes of water to the ease-of-being necessary to succeed in martial arts, if not life in general. Water is fluid, adaptable, ever-changing yet commanding of presence. It can crash with great power but also flow with gentle ease. The call to “Be Like Water” is to imply the intended link between martial arts and mastery of self. There is a case to be made that there are some on the autistic spectrum who would benefit from practicing a form of martial arts.

Research from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse set out to explore the impact of martial arts classes on high-functioning children on the autistic spectrum. This study not only found a clear improvement in physical areas such as balance and motor coordination but also in the navigation of social cues such as eye contact and attentiveness. It was also observed that the children felt more positive about themselves and were able to approach social interactions with less friction than before.

I can certainly speak to my own experience of attaining a black belt in ITF Tae Kwon Do. Aspergers’ affects everyone differently but many of the difficulties I have faced should sound familiar to others on the autistic spectrum; problems with motor co-ordination, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, acute anxiety, the feeling that one lacks a sense of self-control, self-discipline or even self-worth. I personally found martial arts to be helpful in addressing these challenges though when I began martial arts, my initial inspiration was the video game Tekken 3.

My mother found Tae Kwon Do classes being offered in her gym, even though this was the Korean martial art practiced by Hwaorang” in Tekken 3 and not my preferred option of ninjitsu which was practiced by Yoshimitsu, who upon reflection was a lightsaber-wielding android of some description and may therefore have constituted an exaggerated portrayal. Nevertheless, I achieved impressive accomplishments in Tae Kwon Do over eight years of training, considering how emotionally-turbulent those particular eight years of teenage life were for me.

In spite of earning a black belt and Student of the Year 2006, I fell out of practicing Tae Kwon Do following injuries that coincided with study for my Leaving Cert but last year I felt the urge to begin training again. I opted to try a class in the Indonesian martial art of Penchak Silat, having seen it in The Raid movies and clearly still being somewhat susceptible to media representations of martial arts. Studying a new martial art was a revelation for me insofar as it demonstrated that martial arts can be as different from each other as languages.

Silat is a martial art that emphasises flow and being calm even during a fight. As I am still developing in relation to my anxiety management, I had to get used to the more laidback teaching style. The more I have reflected, the greater the contrast between my learning experiences seemed. My Tae Kwon Do instructor had more of a tough-love approach and in general Tae Kwon Do places a greater importance on the precision of learnt movements. It is possible that the rigidity needed to maintain form in this particular style of martial art fed into a sense of physical tension I have known for some years. I can’t help feeling that Silat would have suited me better in the first instance.

This all comes with important caveats. This was how I personally experienced these martial arts and there could well be practitioners of either who feel that my descriptions here are not fair. Perhaps it was not the Tae Kwon Do itself that was making me feel rigid but rather my approach to it. I’m just saying that while Tae Kwon Do may have made me more used to being in high-pressure situations, maybe the skill of approaching situations with less pressure on myself would have been a more valuable skill for me personally.

Personal circumstance is key to considering whether you should take up martial arts. Practically, there should be local classes available in various forms of martial arts throughout the country. Classes are typically conducted through formal instructions, fostering attentiveness and social awareness, though as said, the level of formality can vary depending on the art-form and instructor. There are typically group exercises where one must pair off with a partner, entailing the development of social skills. There is often sparring or fighting of some kind but one needn’t be concerned that this would foster aggressiveness as it is closely monitored and taught with a view to develop self-control both physically and emotionally. There could also be social aspects of preparing for competitions, travelling to them and possibly fundraising for such travel.

I was able to do all of this as someone on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. If it sounds like something achievable then I would say to try it. If it is not possible to engage in a “heavy” martial art, then even something such as yoga or tai-chi could be well worth doing as the sense of physical control one learns over time can influence the sense of ease we allow ourselves to feel. My personal situation right now is that I am focusing on weight training and yoga before returning to martial arts.

If one is ready to attempt a heavy martial art, one that emphasises flow may be best for your circumstances; one like Silat or Jeet Kune Do, the martial art developed by Bruce Lee. Returning to his analogy of “Be Like Water”, Lee emphasised the mindset that one can be calm, adaptable and strong in one’s sense of self as paramount to his approach to martial arts. If it can be applied to living life on the autistic spectrum, perhaps we should strive more to “Be Like Water”!


Image courtesy of patrisyu /

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