As a school teacher, I got to know a number of students with Asperger's Syndrome. I found them to be unique and interesting individuals, usually of above average intelligence. Some could be easily provoked to violence and others easily dissolved into tears. The main difference was the way they related to people. Aspergers students find the usual social interactive clues to be a complete mystery. They are literal, deeply motivated to learn things that interest them, and often obsessive - but which of us aren't? One of my best teenage martial arts students had Aspergers Syndrome. He needed quite a lot of one on one attention. He also knew how to practise endlessly out of class and retain what he had been taught. The chances are you know someone with Aspergers Syndrome and have hardly noticed the differences. One on one they are very interesting friends. The problems happen in a group situation where individualism is unacceptable.
Chinese Swords Guide: Would you please tell us what Asperger's Syndrome is?
Joshua: Apsergers is the name for a type of high functioning autism. I cannot possibly describe it, but there are many resources available that offer observations relevant to it and how it affects social and individual development and behaviors. It has been stated that among other things, Aspies do not share group consciousness. The most common thing that most people notice about aspies is that they are socially awkward, they have a hard time reading people and have specific challenges with regard to communication.
CSG: How does having Aspergers Syndrome affect you in relating to other people?
Joshua: On the most simple level I simply do not relate to people. I know I am fundamentally the same, and yet I am functionally distinct. I have felt a peculiar feeling of confusion in relation to other people. Outwardly I have often been told that I was "not like the other kids". There is a saying that birds of a feather flock together, thus the lack of reconciliation between personalities often leads Aspies to become ostracized as well as to engage in self removal type isolation from social situations and events.
CSG: Does Aspergers make any difference to the way you learn martial arts skills?
Joshua: It makes a difference to the way I learn anything. However one of the greatest noticeable differences between the functionality of an Aspie and Neurotypical/normal (NT) is found in the relationship of information to social functioning and how Aspies and NTs process information. This means all communication is impacted by this difference in function. So this impacts the instruction and learning a great deal for an aspie, particularly in group settings. You see, an Aspie often requires clarification of details beyond that which an NT would be satisfied with, at least for me this is true. It detracts from the group's learning pace and common level to have detailed clarifications for a minority of individuals. Thus aspies are considered disruptive and often conflated as being deliberately so. The conflation arises out of the intellectual aptitude of the aspie, their obsessive aspects typically lead to increased capacity for learning information and this is typically in a self taught environment or manner.
Aspies have a somewhat obsessive compulsive drive. It is independent too. There is a tendency to fidget in some cases... I employ the fidgeting to practice. So I often get several hours of practice in during a day in times when I suspect most people would not think to practice. The whole world is a dojo and class is in session.
However in regard to martial arts, the acquisition of information is secondary to the development of skill. Although requiring a foundation for progressive development, it does not require informational corroboration for technical details. Information is not a martial skill unto itself and once someone has enough information to practice then there is no way more information will hasten the development of skill. In addition to this potentially challenging, (for an information oriented aspie), facet of martial training, Aspies are also typically clumsy or have less well developed coordination than NTs. This can pose some specific challenges to the development of skill and coordination. However since there is an obsessive aspect to it, obsessive practice can be somewhat easy for an Aspie! So altogether having AS presents both potential challenges and advantages for martial arts skill development.
CSG: When practising with other student's in a class, what are good and bad situations for you?
Joshua: Being with other students in a class is a bad situation for me. In terms of learning I can do the class group thing, but not well. In a group setting I tend to perform below average. I can practice for hours on my own, but groups demotivate me and I do not like them at all. I have always learned on my own. Even in college when they asked us to pair up with partners or groups I would ask the teacher if I could be by myself. When I do push hands with strangers I don't even try, I hide what I can do and tend to work for hours with close friends on things and avoid group settings. I do well with my close friends. I view groups as having a mob mentality that I have a hard time appreciating.
Having to interact with another person that I do not know detracts from the experience of both people in drills.
Aspies often have touch aversion, even in some cases to the point of violence. This means if the AS person is not comfortable, touch can be a bad idea and in taiji this can cause a strong disconnection. Thus distracted, the aspies appear more coordination challenged when working with strangers in drills than with people they are comfortable with. To the NT it would seem the AS person was inconsistant or overloaded when something else is going on. However, in competetive violence, things change. The touch aversion can work on behalf of the AS person. It's almost as if, when agitated by touch, they don't have to hold back. They become more coordinated. At least this has been my observation in my life. Also Aspergers Syndrome folks often feel emotionally detached from things although the emotions are not absent. This can make them potentially cold to strangers. It is not dislike, but rather a lack of affection or affiliation. I may not be ideal as an example, I am an INTJ (introverted, intuitive,thinking, judging) personality type and that also impacts on how I react in social learning situations.
CSG: Would you recommend martial arts training for all children or adults with Aspergers and why or why not?
Joshua: Any introspective martial art yes, any sportfighting martial art, no. I would not suggest martial arts training in general for people with Aspergers. What I would suggest is that they find what they love and learn to do it. Training in general is good. However martial training in the CMA realms is a type of complex and enriching life skills training, this includes self defense but the primary focus is self mastery, which must include self preservation skill in the face of violence, to be practical.
I know that I was bullied a lot. I fought hundreds of times in grade school. I was suspended often and had the police called to fights at least three times before I was 10. If I had the right type of training I might have been able to avert much of this violence. If I had known I was an aspie it would have made things much better. I would have realized that no matter how hard I try I will not be like the other kids. Trying to be like them was my problem and now I am happy to be different. I have different skills and tendencies and perhaps, even a different purpose in life - not better or worse mind you, just different.
So being an aspie I would say that martial arts can help you develop and work with your specific and individual traits, allowing a person greater ability to employ their differences as resources and commodities as opposed to potential sources of trouble.
CSG: Which do you think are the best martial arts for people with Aspergers to learn?
Joshua: Taijiquan - the basis of taijiquan as it relates to Tao, wuji-taiji and yin and yang is more than just a martial art. I feel it leads to improved understanding of self and the world around us. However any art with a good core philosophy is good for an aspie, they can connect concepts to reality well, even if they can't tell when others are being sarcastic or using a figure of speech.
CSG: What do you think martial arts teachers need to know most for helping Aspergers students in their classes?
Joshua: It is hard to say, as poorly as aspies understand others it seems that others also poorly understand aspies. So I would say there first needs to come an understanding of the key differences and the key similarities involved. Aspies do not share group consciousness so what works for group settings and crowds does not tend to reach them. Aspies need a reason to fixate upon, so honesty is of extreme importance. If they are told for example, some motivating white lie and then find out that it was not true, then this often backfires. While they may not be able to perceive sarcasm, they see right through people in other ways that most people are clueless about. Much of this has to do with obsession about details.
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