Understanding Individualism

Synopsis: Each and every child that steps into your dojo comes with their very own unique perspectives on life. They all interpret life, people, and their immediate environment differently, their social mobility and motor control also vary immeasurably and you have to be prepared to cater for them all. Ensure your programme has the ability and contingency in place to deliver the best experience possible.

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Undeniably, the martial arts should be considered individual pursuits.

Nevertheless, when it comes to coaching the skills required to develop wholeheartedly, instructors will coach the class with material directed towards the group.

One-to-one feedback can only be applied in specific situations such as small group lessons and of course private sessions, to a certain degree, the only other time children require this totally dedicated feedback is at an elite level where the nuances of strategy and specific technical knowledge are a necessity. With this in mind…

What service do you offer children that find the group setting challenging & as a coach, can you identify the special needs of such children?

In a previous article I described how crucial it is to strategically schedule beginners courses for maximising your marketing exposure, planning ahead in such a manner not only facilitates efficient forecasting of events at your academy thus streamlining your energy and focus in preparing upcoming content but it also provides the best learning environment for existing students and any new recruits to your program.

I spoke of how scheduled beginner’s courses can have a significant impact of your long-term student retention if you market correctly when it comes to timing and sourcing the correct ‘partnerships’. I also touched on how not utilising such an approach can negatively affect the learning of children on your mats – both new attendees and your existing customer base. Nevertheless, unless you are knowledgeable and have contingencies in place for children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) even the best scheduling in the world can be futile.

However small some children’s aversions to learning in a larger group setting are it is something you must be in-tune with and be prepared for. Language, emotions, subtlety and socially accepted norms are just a few issues that children with ASD behave differently towards and this article will attempt to offer some advice based on my own experiences for you to use in up-scaling your own service, communication and how you deliver a curriculum for such an audience.

What is ASD?

‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’ provides an array of recognised disorders characterised by specific behaviours affecting social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted or repetitive behaviour. It is often argued that every person has traits of ASD characterised through simple behaviours associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), competitiveness and fairness. The most common and accepted disorders associated with ASD that you may encounter as a coach are Autism and Aspergers syndrome – both lifelong, developmental disabilities that affect how a person communicates and relates to other people and how they experience the world around them.

Understanding behaviour.

As much as knowing the definitions of ASD and what it involves, in most cases, parents will bring along children having forewarned you of their condition and or made an enquiry as to the suitability of your classes. As a coach, recognising emotional responses and resultant behaviours is key and having the means and ability to deal with these behaviours will ensure congruity and equity within ALL your classes. Of course there are times where children will attend your classes without prior introduction – you will notice differences, however subtle or profound. From experience and over time, I have developed a confidence where I am able to notice even the smallest ‘difference’ and tailor my delivery to these awesome children.

Meet Stanley Webb.

Stanley is my youngest son, he is the love of my life, in my eyes, perfect. Combined with my other two children, he is what makes my heart beat.

At the age of three and a half he was diagnosed with Autism.

Being Autistic doesn’t change a thing about Stanley, we often attribute his ‘quirky’ nature and unique sense of humour to the diagnosis but he receives no special treatment and fully integrates with other children in all settings – especially at Jiu-Jitsu – but it hasn’t always been this way. Let me tell you a little more about Stanley and how he has helped me recognise certain traits in other children and in doing so connect with them on a completely different level and how through gaining an understanding of his needs we have managed his conditioning to such a level that you would not pick him out from the group.

From around two years, socialising for Stanley was a struggle. He found it very hard to ‘share’ and he would easily shy away from any interactions with a large group. There were times where Stanley would pace up and down alongside fences that surrounded his pre-school whilst rubbing his teddy on his nose as a coping mechanism, he would scream when the wind blew around his ears, hated getting wet in the rain and would resist anything touching his lips. As parents, myself and my wife were distraught, other parents would stare as he would scream with frustration during a ‘meltdown’ but, almost in denial, we associated any differences with him being the youngest of three and this being his way of getting what he wanted.

Much of our home life was dictated to as Stanley’s way or no way, we’d only go to certain places, certain shops, certain restaurants because we were worried he’d have another meltdown due to the unfamiliarity or the noises associated with the new environment. Family dinners always consisted of separate meals just so he would eat and if that routine was broken he would refuse the food, this refusal to eat certain foods due to their texture or consistency made for issues surrounding his digestion too and overall things were strained. At this point, as with many parents, we had no understanding of Autism, no experience of ‘special needs’, the closest I had personally ever come to the phrase was at school where certain children had to have one-to-one tuition for certain subjects.

From around five years things had improved, as parents we had learned how to communicate, understand interactions and of course, learned to anticipate cues before issues arose. In retrospect, Stanley has been extremely fortunate to have had the support of a number of excellent SENCO (Special Needs Education Coordinators) that have provided fantastic support and guidance along the way. From the very first day Stanley received his diagnosis he has had the support required to coach him through tasks that other children take for granted: drinking from a cup, dealing with the awkward sensations associated with certain foods, the rules and regulations of games and indeed social interaction and communicating.

How has this affected his martial arts?

Stanley began training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in my weekly tots class aged four, the session itself was extremely hectic and with as many as twenty 3-5 year old tots on the mats, at times, very hard to manage.

I’ve already mentioned Stanley’s apprehension to socialising but starting the Jiu Jitsu Tots™ was my subconcious attempt to get him involved in practicing something that I believed he would benefit from in terms of skill acquisition, motor control and of course social mobility.

Being my son, he obviously tried to push boundaries, he would sulk if he didn’t ‘win’ – he hated losing with a passion, there would be erratic outbursts during simple Q&A at the beginning of each class and Stanley’s lack of an ‘indoor voice’ meant I often had to remind him to quieten down and not to “shout out”. His insistence on working with the same partner every time became a contentious issue and even removing his socks for practice was a big deal because of how the mats felt on his bare feet.

As with many people with ASD, assimilating the material I was delivering was hard for Stanley, even now at eight years old I often observe a frustrated, worried little boy before we begin practicing as a group because has not quite grasped the entirety of the skills to be drilled. As a child keen to impress and with a desire to compete with peers he is anxious to ask for any demonstration to be repeated, this slow uptake in skill acquisition obviously hinders his recall at the physical level but ask him to talk you through movements and or recite a step-by-step process that he has just seen and you will find no better child within the group. Altogether, this provides yet more frustration for Stanley as some children, who began training after him, have superseded his grade, their greater athleticism (strength, agility and speed) and Stanley’s perception of stronger and faster sometimes affect his confidence.

There are many other traits that Stanley demonstrates that you would not find in children who are not on the ASD spectrum. His almost fixated attitude to rules mean that simple concepts (once explained) are taken literally without any lateral line of thought, where most other children could adapt to certain live situations within the class setting his understanding can be hindered by a rigid ‘must do’ or ‘mustn’t do‘  philosophy all of which affects organic development.

On Wednesday 02 November 2016 I promoted Stanley to his first official belt (the grey and white belt) in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It took him four years of frustration, perseverance and sheer determination to reach his goal. Peers that started alongside him have failed in their own endeavour to persist and reach the same stage, as his instructor and more importantly his ‘daddy’, I am not ashamed to say it brought a tear to my eye when I tied the belt around his waist.


What can you learn from my experience?

Every child is different, every single one has their own way of learning. Some children learn at a much faster rate than others, many will thrive in one kind of coaching environment whereas others will just not engage at all, there are some children that ‘keep up’ because they are intelligent whilst others make up for any lack in acuity because of natural athleticism. Understand this individualism.

Below are some examples, by no means definitive, of behaviours characteristic of children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, whether perceived as negative or positive all can be coached and fostered with great success.

  • Reluctance to enter into a new setting or environment.
  • Reluctance and unease to certain forms of physical contact.
  • Aversion to loud noise.
  • A pronounced literal understanding of explanations.
  • A pronounced literal understanding of rules.
  • An inability to conform (sitting quietly, listening).
  • Under-developed motor skills (coordination, balance, dexterity)
  • Over-developed theoretical recall on subjects of interest.
  • An eagerness to please.
  • Difficulties may occur when reading body language and expressions.
  • Misunderstanding of order and ‘taking turns’.

How can you successfully change your delivery?

  1. First and foremost, do not take yourself or the subject you deliver too seriously. If you become aware of a child’s reluctance to engage make an effort to get down to their level, speak with them, soften your approach make a big deal out of routine, mundane things that have caught their attention – let them wear your black belt for the session, have them stand at the front of the class, involve them.
  2. Become ‘hands on’ with every detail. Be ready to coax the child’s understanding by guiding them through movements, be aware that your explanations are sometimes only clear and concise to you and those that are used to your way of coaching.
  3. Find out what the children’s interests are and use this to connect, at this point they are probably not ‘hooked’ on martial arts and may only have a fleeting interest so factor in their other passions – this is your chance. Find out if their passion is football, video gaming, art or music and use it to draw out a conversation. Express an interest in their obsession and be empathetic to how it makes them feel, if you are genuine with this and not conceited or cynical in any way both they and their parents will appreciate it and you shall be one step closer to garnering trust.
  4. Encouragement is key, use the same rewards for everyone but take time to explain why you are happy with their progression and what they have accomplished. Remove the ‘win vs. loss’ culture from your classes,  unless you run a world-class stable of youth competitors it’s not necessary and if you do, schedule a separate class to breed such an environment. Explain the importance of perseverance and develop a level of empathy to deal with frustration and anguish that will no doubt appear from time to time.
  5. Harness a level of trust between everyone at your school – buddy systems are great for this, encourage ‘group work’ and an element of chatter or discussion to develop social inclusion. Paired and teamed tasks as warm up games or even whilst working through more complex tasks provide yet more trust and at the same time breed a sense of importance and reliability for other children.
  6. Be selective about your language and the context of words or phrases you would ordinarily use without a second thought. Children with ASD will not comprehend instructions or encouragement in the same manner as those that do not: “pull your socks up”, “choose wisely” and “pull your finger out!” are classic examples that often baffle autistic children, sarcasm is another example where your meaning is genuine yet can cause often catastrophic misunderstanding. The same can be true when not considering body language and or facial expressions, children with ASD find both hard to comprehend.
  7. Sensory issues have already been discussed in this article when I explained my sons early aversion to bare feet on the mats, does your class involve equipment peculiar to your setting? Maybe pads, gloves, cones, agility ladders, bags, belts or thick starchy uniforms? Take the time to gradually explain and present this equipment – introducing this ahead of time removes potential anxiety concerns and a level of comfort conducive to trust and confidence.

Nobody knows exactly what causes Autistic Spectrum Disorder and there are many divisions and distinctions to this complex issue, nevertheless, using the information presented in this article you should be much better prepared to understand the individualism presented by children with the condition and should you be serious about growing your kids classes the experiences described will harness your ability to provide a distinct level of equity to your school or academy.

In an upcoming article I shall discuss various charities and partnerships available to align yourself with that may enable better delivery and communication all of which will build your brand and grow your kids classes.

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