“The Tragedy isn’t Autism – The Tragedy is the lack of understanding of Autism, Lack of resources, Interventions not being met with the person in mind and Assumptions being made about the person.’ –Paul Isaacs
I was 12 or 13 years old, and on the other side of the parking lot from my Kenpo Karate School was a pizza place with a small arcade. In those days kids hung out at the arcades with a roll of quarters to kill time. It was a usual Saturday afternoon. Having spent the morning training and helping to teach kids classes for my teacher at the dojo, I was having a blast playing the popular game of the time “Street Fighter II”. The beauty of the game is that you got to keep playing as long as you won your matches against other players. One quarter could last me hours because I had mastered the art of kicking everyone else’s butt on the game. Of course sometimes this landed me in hot water with kids who did not like to loose. My most memorable encounter was when I met my friend Scott Henry.
It started off mundane enough. A big kid came up to play me on the arcade game, and like usual, I began to systematically erase his power meter at the top of the screen ( Oh yeah scott, I don’t think you ever beat me ), but this time something else happened. Somewhere in the vigor of the game my hand slipped off of the controller and I accidentally back handed him in the face. It was an accident, but I soon was standing in front of an older and bigger kid and his hands were locked around my neck.
Of course it startled me, but he was not squeezing his hands. I wasn’t being choked, but I fully expected to be soon. I remember my senses sort of going flat. I had been competing in fighting tournaments for a number of years now, but suddenly I was faced with the real deal. I steadied my self and started to clench my fist to unleash on this big guy, but suddenly I heard from behind me my buddy Robbie yell;
“OH MY GOD!!!! EVERYBODY WATCH, ADAM IS GOING TO NINJA KICK THIS GUY!!!!!”
To every ones surprise, this big kid that had just been smacked in the face and enraged, gasped as if he had seen a ghost. He released my neck and raised his arms in surrender with a look of complete terror on his face. I did not know how to react. We stood there looking at each other for a moment, but soon simply returned to playing our game.
This was the beginning of a life long friendship. It turns out he was on the autistic spectrum. I think labels are not very useful when dealing with spectrum disorders, but my friend Scott is labeled as having Asperger’s Syndrome. If you know any body who has Asperger’s, you know that they take what people say very literal. Having an extreme interest I martial arts and Ninjas, when Scott heard Robbie yell that I could ninja kick him, in his young mind, that’s all he needed to hear. Most kids would have scoffed at it, but not Scott.
After that me and Scott ended up being great friends. I spent many summers hanging around his house with his family, and he became on of my first students even as a young teenager at the Kenpo Karate school we then both attended. Scott has been with me at every school and location I have every taught at, he is my oldest and most loyal friend, and I love him dearly.
Growing up with Mr. Henry in my life was an education into the mind of spectrum people that no book or college course can offer. It has enabled me to be an effective teacher of the spectrum kids that come to my program and offer them a friend and a base for maintaining their confidence through the difficult and dicey road of Jr. High and High school. It has its challenges of course, but spectrum kids are some of the most rewarding and true people you can work with. They are highly intelligent, unyieldingly honest, and fiercely loyal. I have never met a spectrum person that was not the best kind of person one could know.
In fact, the problem with teaching spectrum kids is not the kids problem. Often spectrum kids have a tuff time understanding social boundaries, and inferred expectations of others. This is not a discipline issue, its wired into the core of their very brain matter. Some observing parents don’t understand this. Spectrum kids behave differently and operate by a different set of cognitive rules than other kids. If one is unaware of the disorder, and how to work with children like this, it can appear that a child has a severe discipline issue and the teacher is simply letting it happen. This is far from the truth. There is a complicated relationship happening between the teacher and the spectrum child. The teacher has to win the child over, so the child knows she/he is understood and not just another authority figure that doesn’t get it. Spectrum kids need discipline like any other, but going about it is different than most kids. Spectrum kids, and parents, also need to know that their teacher will stand by them no matter what and will seek a solution that paves the way for progress.
Over the years I have various techniques to educate people on what is happening. Blogging about it is a new one, but if you hear me instructing one of my young leaders on how to work with a particularly loud or disruptive child, chances are I have designed it that way to inform parents that may not understand that we are working with a child with special needs yeas I set up an opportunity to easdrop to inform people of why a child is acting a particular way. They deserve the opportunity to learn martial arts as much as any child does. In many ways, it will benefit them more than anyone else. Having a core of people that understands them and a place that accepts them no matter what that is apart of their daily lives becomes an important psychological shield against the negativity they might encounter growing up with bully’s and misinformed attitudes. No other activity offers kids and people this besides maybe church groups.
The other problem I encounter is with some parents of the spectrum kids themselves. Most of the time things are fine, but occasionally I get a parent who is overly embarrassed by their child’s behavior in a group setting. Honestly I wish they would get over it. I’m not bothered by it, ill educated the other parents one way or another if they are not already, and my staff is trained and educated on what to do and how to interact with them. If it bothers a parent that much, they should just sit in their car and let me bring 20 years of working with spectrum kids and a passion for them to their child’s side. Those that can stick it out will have lifelong friends and peers through martial arts.
In truth. They are our teachers. Spectrum people from Daniel Tamet to Temple Gradin have given us a perspective on human potential that is beyond what we ever dreamed. We should be learning from these interesting people and trying to understand their world. We should protect them from the negativity of ignorance, support them in their journey of self, and cultivate their talents.
Next time you see an overly talkative child, that cant seem to remember to stay in his spot, cant look you in the eye, or doesn’t seem to get what he is supposed to be doing. Take note. That child may very well be the next Einstein or Leonardo Divinci both of which are speculated to have been on the spectrum. What ever you do ,however, do not accidentally slap them in the face while playing a video game. You might just end up tagging along with one for life, and having a constant voice in your ear to return to your inner child. He might show up in his hakama pants instead of his traditional uniform, he might bug you to always go to the movies and take some time for yourself, he will crack jokes that only he understands, and he will constantly bring you back to your dungeons and dragons days and reveal to all your students that you were somewhat of a dork in high school. You will find yourself skeptical about any girl friends he has and their motives, worried if he can find the new dojo, worried if his living arrangements are adequate, and deeply concerned about a big guy older than you are that still thinks ninjas are the best thing since sliced bred. You will however have access to every bit of lore from marvel to the Greek pantheon, but most of all, he will teach you about heart, loyalty, longevity, and what it means to be an utterly true friend with no expectations, demands, hang-ups, or motives.
Thank you Mr. Henry. I know you want to teach martial arts, and you can. But you are already the teacher of so many. Every spectrum kid I have ever worked with has you to thank for your lessons. You are their teacher as well.
Now get your butt to class more. We miss you.
Thank you for reading my article. Remember that your referrals of friends and family is the highest compliment you can pay me and our school. I keep all my communications forwarded to my cell phone, and I am one hundred percent accessible via call, text message, or email at anytime. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting me, my family, my business, and I always look forward to your feed back and suggestions.