The Best Sport for Autism and Other Mental Disabilities

Diagnosed with shingles days after I had won first place at the 2013 USA National Taekwondo Competition (1), I, at the peak of my athleticism, was forced to let go of everything I had trained for since the age of five. For three months, I could not train at the dojo or at home because I was bed-ridden and contagious. After a long summer of recovery, I was able to train again, but I quickly realized that I would never be able to fully regain cardiovascular and respiratory capabilities with time.
This illness helped me appreciate taekwondo beyond the glamorous gold medals. Shingles led me to a route that has fulfilled me in a way I had not anticipated – sharing my skills to help the mentally disabled in my community.

A few days after being informed that students at an institution for the mentally disabled suffered with obesity and other health issues, my sister and I started a taekwondo program. Our class was the first organized athletic program at the institution, American Wheat Mission, but I initially did not care much for it. I was focused on training to return to competing at the highest level as soon as I could, and I agreed to teach the students at the institution once a week only because I wanted to be a good citizen. I thought leading a class couldn’t be too hard, given the experience under my belt, my taekwondo belt, that is. However, I quickly realized that teaching 20 students with mental disabilities and their assigned aides would be no small feat. The students ranged from age 7 to 30, some even over twice my age at the time, and when I first stepped into the room to greet my new class, even introducing myself was a challenge. One student was jumping, another was yelling, another running, the list goes on.

After my sister left for college, I singlehandedly directed the class that had grown to 30 students. In the beginning, I was convinced that the students would not be able to master basic motions. Most of the students were inattentive to basic instructions because of their extreme placement on the autism spectrum, and the rest of the students refused to engage as a result of their Down syndrome. The few individuals who did try could not manage even lifting one leg without falling. Their strongest attempt to break a board was knocking it as if it were a door. However, I refused to give up. I started an additional intensive class, and I spent time outside of class planning long-term goals tailored to each student, choreographing creative taekwondances, and preparing class curricula. And the students did, in fact, improve. Now, in my intensive class, every student completes each stretch, drill, and activity. They maintain silence during meditation and can perform 50 consecutive kicks at waist height. They have perfected both the hammerpunch and the elbow strike to the extent that they can break boards without my assistance. I was not the only one pleasantly surprised by the students’ progress; the students themselves and their parents were astounded by the improvement.

While I was overjoyed to see my students reap benefits from practicing taekwondo, I did not realize until this year that taekwondo specifically is one of the best sports for those with mental disabilities. Contrary to popular belief, only 58 of every 1000 taekwondo students suffer a serious injury, and there is no statistical correlation between martial arts and violence. Surprisingly enough, I found that taekwondo is not only one of the best sports, but one of the best activities for comprehensive improvement in individuals with cognitive impairments.

Neurologists, psychologists and other medical professionals highly recommend taekwondo for autistic children’s healthy lifestyle choices that lead to psychological and physical development. Sports such as taekwondo, as Dr. Fred Volkmar, head of the Yale Child Study Center, puts it, “are very ritualized and predictable, so those sports are good for kids with autism.” Autistic children exhibit behaviors where the same word, phrase or movement is repeated in an almost obsessive pattern, so one might initially think that a child on the autism spectrum should avoid doing repetitive physical skill training, such as taekwondo, and yet scientific studies increasingly prove otherwise, as repetitive practice is the foundation of skilled learning, especially for taekwondo.

The focus demanded from taekwondo can be especially helpful as a supplemental activity for children with autism. According to Erin Carson, a writer for the Livestrong Foundation, martial arts “can turn on a child’s attention system – consisting of the cerebellum, frontal cortex and limbic system – which can affect the parts of the brain responsible for sequencing, prioritizing, working memory and sustaining attention.” Furthermore, exercise increases the brain’s dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. “These chemicals in the brain positively affect the attention system’s ability to stay regular and consistent, which can increase alertness.”

Through taekwondo, the mind develops fundamental habits such as self-discipline. By controlling the autonomic nervous system (fight or rest) while staying in tune with emotions, one also develops willpower. This discipline enables the athlete to not only persist through strenuous training, but also train him/herself in character and performance on and off the training mat. Not to mention, it builds a habit in setting and meeting goals; taekwondo requires memorization of specific forms, and belt promotion is earned by correctly executing the form. In addition, the intense dedication one must exhibit for proficient results in taekwondo builds concentration. In practicing taekwondo, students train their brain to focus, a skill that benefits in learning in other disciplines. Other mental benefits include improved memory capacity, enhanced cognitive functions such as determining right from left, and a heightened self-esteem. Since the structure of taekwondo is based on measurable goals such as breaking boards, winning matches, and being promoted in belt, students have specific figures to point to when taking pride in their feats.JO_16_0129-149-2587

The brain is not the only muscle exercised, as taekwondo also offers various physical benefits. Young people with autism have been statistically prone to obesity. As of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that autistic children are two times more likely to be obese than children without autism, and approximately 32% of autistic children are “severely overweight.” Taekwondo is one of the most efficient sports to tackle weight problems, labeled the “best martial arts for weight loss.” The Federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion listed the sport as a rigorous activity, and it is one of the top calorie burning cardiovascular workouts. A person of 160 pounds typically burns 752 calories in 60 minutes of training in taekwondo. For a comparative analysis, a person of 160 pounds typically burns 292 calories in 60 minutes of playing volleyball. Taekwondo is especially fitting for autistic children; the CDC reported differences in weight in those with autism than in those without as early as in ages two to five years, and taekwondo is a sport than can and usually is practiced from a young age. Before taught and pressured about health and exercise, children become familiar with an enjoyable schedule that includes beneficial.

A second physical benefit of taekwondo is its ability to alleviate sleep problems, which are reportedly as high as 80% in autistic children. Recent research demonstrates that poor autistic sleepers exhibit more problematic behavior than good sleepers, as sleep problems and insufficient sleep can result in daytime sleepiness, learning problems and behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, inattentiveness and aggression. The most common sleep problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are difficulty falling asleep and repeated awakenings during the night. Professionals such as Dr. Paul Loprinzi and Dr. Bradley J. Cardinal in addition to other sources of mounting scientific evidence conclude that the more people exercise, the more people sleep significantly better and feel more alert during the day. Not to mention, according to Dr. Michael J. Breus, a Clinical Psychologist and a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, exercise also helps keep body clocks in line with sleep and wake times.

A third physical benefit of taekwondo is the development of important physical habits.Taekwondo nurtures good posture. Today, 3 in every 100 people have scoliosis, including those already diagnosed with mental disabilities. Taekwondo nurtures good posture since every stance and motion requires a straight back. Taekwondo also fosters full and healthy use of the lungs. During a period of meditation, students teach themselves to breathe deeply, allowing oxygen to fill the lower and middle parts of the lungs. During fast-paced drills, students learn to breathe quickly, allowing oxygen to fill the upper portion of the lungs. In taekwondo, breathing engages all parts of the lungs. Though unnoticed, “the way one breathes,” reports Jamie Licauco, writer for Inquirer Lifestyle, “can have either a salutary or deleterious effect on one’s health and well-being.”

A fourth benefit of taekwondo is the development of numerous skills. There are three main events in taekwondo: sparring, form, and breaking. Since most dojangs, institutions where taekwondo is practiced, have inclusive curriculums including all three events, taekwondo enhances a variety of physical skills in trainees, stretching the body’s capabilities in speed, accuracy, strength, flexibility and coordination. Sparring students develop agility and sharp reflexes, quickly evading and countering a kick. Form students develop accuracy and balance, refining their technique by performing choreographed routines. Breaking students develop strength and timing, breaking wooden boards of varying thickness and in different ways. All taekwondo students develop flexibility and coordination.

Autism is becoming increasingly prevalent. According to estimates from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network of Centers of Disease Control (CDC) 2014 report, the number of children identified with ASD varied widely by community, from 1 in 175 children in areas of Alabama to 1 in 45 children in areas of New Jersey. Nevertheless, in the same report, 1 in 68 children in America was identified with ASD. This new estimate is roughly 30% higher than the estimate for 2008 (1 in 88), 60% higher than the estimate for 2006 (1 in 110), and 120% higher than the estimates for 2000 and 2002 (1 in 150). Taekwondo dojangs have also become more ubiquitous and hence more accessible to this increasing population. For those interested in competing, taekwondo is also emerging like no other sport, as one of the two martial arts hosted in the Olympics and in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Whether students train for fun or train to compete, taekwondo’s nature of mutual teamwork and individuality is perfect for autistic students, for students train together and build each other yet perform independently.
My four students who have recently passed their first promotion test to white-yellow belt are working everyday to tie the belt, which represents taekwondo’s central motive. The inner layer of the belt around the waist is representative of the human inner mind, the outer layer is representative of the human physical body, and the tying the two forms a diamond-shaped knot; the balanced collaboration of the mind and body creates a strong and indestructible human like the diamond, an unbreakable crystal. By unifying the mind and body, taekwondo offers both psychological and physical benefits.

(1) Taekwondo is professionally spelt as one word, but the term is also informally spelt as tae kwon do.
(2) Pieter, W. “Injury Rates in Children Participating in Taekwondo Competition.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. July 1, 1997.
(3) Goehner, Amy Lennard. “What to Ask About Autism.” New York Times. April 13, 2011.
(4) Carson, Erin. “How Does Karate Help Kids With ADHD?” LIVESTRONG.COM. August 16, 2013.
(5) Harle, Wade. “Taekwondo Speed Training.” LIVESTRONG.COM. October 21, 2013.
(6) Lakes, Kimberley D., and William T. Hoyt. “Promoting Self-regulation Through School-based Martial Arts Training.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 25, no. 3, 283-302.
(7) “Key Findings: Prevalence and Impact of Unhealthy Weight in a National Sample of US Adolescents with Autism and Other Learning and Behavioral Disorders.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 18, 2014.
(8) Wayne, Jake. “The Best Martial Arts for Weight Loss.” LIVESTRONG.COM. January 30, 2014.
(9) Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Be Active Your Way: A Fact Sheet for Adults.” Be Active Your Way: A Fact Sheet for Adults. November 6, 2014.
(10) Dunham, Deborah. “What Cardio Workout Burns the Most Calories?” LIVESTRONG.COM. October 21, 2013.
(11) Mayo Clinic Staff. “Weight Loss.” Exercise for Weight Loss: Calories Burned in 1 Hour. December 1, 2011.
(12) Lamm, Carin. “Sleep and the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” Autism Speaks. N.d.
(13) Loprinzi, Paul D., and Bradley J. Cardinal. “Association between Objectively-measured Physical Activity and Sleep, NHANES 2005-2006.” Mental Health and Physical Activity. 2011.
(14) Breus, Michael J. “Does Your Teen Sleep Like a Zombie? There’s a Reason for That.” Huffington Post. December 1, 2012.
(15) Shah, Suken. “Scoliosis.” KidsHealth – the Web’s Most Visited Site about Children’s Health. January 1, 2013.
(16) Licauco, Jamie. “Is There a Healthy Way of Breathing?” Inquirer Lifestyle. October 14, 2014.
(17) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. 2014.

Christina Cho Profile1 picChristina H. Cho is a certified fourth degree black belt master by Kukkiwon with twelve years of experience. Since 2006, she has been top-ranked at the USA Taekwondo New York State Championship and the USA Taekwondo New Jersey State Championship in events including individual poomsae, partner poomsae, team poomsae, breaking, and sparring. At the 2013 USA National Taekwondo Championship, she won first place in female partner poomsae and fourth place in individual breaking. She has been an authorized referee for the Pan American Taekwondo Association since 2010, the youngest member of the Tri-State Officials Certified Taekwondo Referees Corp since 2013, and the master of the taekwondo program for students with mental disabilities at The American Wheat Mission since 2013.

Christina thanks her family for their unconditional love and support in her taekwondo journey as well as her adviser Ms. Stanford for her help in writing this article.