Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders sometimes look to activities such as martial arts to help their kids. They often find attention, motor control and behavior improve with martial arts.
“You’ll read about these children trying martial arts based on recommendations of a parents support network, but there hadn’t been a science to back it up,” said John Greany, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse assistant professor of physical therapy.
Greany, who has a son with autism spectrum disorder, said he conducted an extensive search of the research literature and didn’t found any studies.
So at the urging of Fred Nicklaus, owner of the Nicklaus Martial Arts America Studio in La Crosse, Greany and two graduate students conducted an 11-week study of six high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders.
The autism spectrum disorder category includes autism, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Nicklaus and William Cornell, an instructor at Nicklaus Martial Arts America Studio, conducted the 45-minute study sessions from September through November at the La Crosse Health Science Center.
The research, which was recently completed, showed improvements in the children including:
- About half improved in social skills based on standardized tests and parents’ perception. “In essence, the kids come out of their shells, and this was statistically significant,” Greany said. The children were more assertive and cooperative.
- Fewer negative behaviors such as fighting. They felt more positive about themselves.
- Better balance. The average time for a one-leg stand went from 9 to 19 seconds.
- Half of the subjects had better eye contact, and two-thirds improved on their play skills.
“These kids experienced progress, the type of progress often taken for granted by other kids,” Greany said.
Greany said he noticed a change in the behavior of his 7-year-old son, Thomas, one of the children in the study.
He said his son improved his balance, motor skills, coordination, attention and running.
Sheryl Solberg said she noticed a difference in her 7-year-old son, Sterling, during the study.
“There was a calmness in him, and his overall strength improved,” Solberg said. “Before the study, he never wanted to stop and play at the playground. But then he wanted to go to the playground all time and started hanging from the monkey bars.”
Chris Jones noticed her 5-year-old son, Carson, improved his balance.
“He used to drag his right toe, and he’s not doing it as much,” Jones said. “We also are working on his fine motor skills.”
Kim Check, a UW-L physical therapy graduate student, said she noticed the children in the study seemed more focused and paid attention more in the martial arts sessions.
“I noticed the kids’ listening skills and respect for the instructor really grew with the sessions,” said Katelyn Manske, a UW-L physical therapy graduate student from La Crosse.
Nicklaus said he knew that martial arts would help children with autism spectrum disorders because he has worked with kids with attention deficit disorders and other disabilities.
“It’s the consistency and structure with our martial arts approach,”
Nicklaus said. “We help them with the ability to concentrate and focus their attention in a very structured environment.”
He said martial arts helps these children communicate and talk more, and they are more willing to try new things, he said.
“Their self-confidence and self-esteem grow with martial arts,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus said he will consider a class for children with autism spectrum disorders or integrating them into his programs.
Greany said the weakness of his study was the small sample size, and he didn’t have a control group.
“We’re hoping to do a bigger study with a control group some day,” Greany said.