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Karate and the Autism Spectrum

© DOUVRIS, 2014

Printable version

Medical studies and the experiences of Sensei and parents all confirm that karate can offer measurable benefits to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). At DOUVRIS, one of our Sensei and numerous members have some degree of Autism. In this article, we share some of their experiences with karate. We also share our best practices for teaching karate to kids and youth on the Autism spectrum.

The information in this article is based on our personal experience at DOUVRIS, as well as third-party research; it is not a medical opinion. Always consult with a medical professional if you have any concerns about engaging in particular physical activity.

Karate and Autism: The Benefits

Any child or adult can benefit from the regular practice of karate, which develops and reinforces important skills, including:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Focus and concentration
  • Fitness and flexibility

In addition to these, other aspects of karate are particularly beneficial in cases of ASD. These include the nature of the social interaction, repetition, visual input, confidence and self-defence that are part of karate instruction.

Social Interaction

People with ASD tend to have difficulties with social interaction. While karate classes are conducted in groups, and students sometimes work together, the focus is on an individual’s development. This makes it very different from a team sport. Students’ skills are not compared, and each member is encouraged to learn at his or her own pace.

Compared to a team sport, being able to progress at one’s own pace and not having to be compared directly with others makes things a lot more enjoyable for our son with high-functioning Autism.” – DOUVRIS parent


Having a routine is important for all kids, but it’s particularly important for those with ASD. What distinguishes karate from other martial arts is the use of forms, or “kata” that encompass a choreographed set of actions and reactions to combat. Katas are repeated in the same way and same order again and again. This makes karate a good match for those with ASD, in addition to being helpful in improving focus, concentration, memory, and reaction time.

“There is a good routine of exercises, skills, and drills that seems to work well for our son with ASD.” – DOUVRIS parent

Visual Input and 1:1 Instruction

People with ASD tend to have difficulty processing and retaining verbal instruction. Karate and kata are learned primarily through watching and doing. The visual and kinetic nature of learning karate makes a good match for many with ASD.

At DOUVRIS, our Leadership Program ensures an exceptionally good student/teacher ratio. Not only is each member is encouraged to learn at his or her own pace, but we are able to provide the 1:1 instruction necessary to facilitate individual learning.

“At DOUVRIS, one-on-one instruction is usually available, often using several different ways of explaining exercises and skills. This seems to work well and sooner or later one of the explanations will click for our son with high-functioning Autism.” – DOUVRIS parent

Confidence and Self-Defense

Any child or person who doesn’t “fit the norm” can be a target for bullying and other forms of abuse. Learning to stand one’s own ground, demonstrate confidence, and acquiring the skills to defend oneself physically are all valuable by-products of regular karate practice.

What the Research Says

In addition to the above observations, medical studies have shown that karate can improve the manifestations of ASD.

Minimizes Sterotypic Behaviours

The most comprehensive study we are aware of was conducted in 2012 at the University of Isfahan. Researchers demonstrated that “Kata techniques training consistently decreases stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder.” These results may seem ironic – it essentially means that researchers found that practicing katas – which are repetitive movements sometimes accompanied by vocalizations – helped to REDUCE more socially debilitating repetitive movements and vocalizations in subjects with ASD.

The study concludes: “Teaching martial arts techniques to children with ASD for a long period of time consistently decreased their stereotypic behaviors.” Go to the study >>

Improves Social Skills, Reduces Negative Behaviours

Another study out of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse demonstrated the following progress made by children with ASD who practiced karate:

  • About half improved in social skills based on standardized tests and parents’ perception. Children came out of their shells and were more assertive and cooperative.
  • Negative behaviors such as fighting were reduced and they felt more positive about themselves.
  • Balance improved.
  • Half of the subjects had better eye contact, and two-thirds improved on their play skills.

Learn about this study >>

A Physician-Sensei’s Opinion

You may also be interested in this Psychology Today article, written by a physician who is also a martial arts instructor. In it, he provides his opinion on why he believes regular karate practice shows benefits to those with ASD. Read the article >>

What OUR Experience Has Shown

At DOUVRIS, our experience with karate and ASD includes a Sensei on the Autism spectrum and a number of young members with ASD. These are some of the best practices that we have developed in working with these individuals:

  1. Good instructors are experienced and patient. How individuals process information is unique, and particularly so for those on the Autism spectrum. A good instructor will appreciate the way each individual learns and will adjust the instruction accordingly.
  2. High-functioning Autism (HFA) can be successfully managed in class by experienced instructors. However, integration can be difficult or impossible in cases of more severe Autism. In those cases, one-on-one instruction is required to provide the necessary level of instruction and attention.
  3. A balance of routine and new approaches is required. For some, routine is important; for others, it is boring and fresh angles to the instruction are necessary to keep them engaged. Again, this can be true of anyone, not only someone with ASD, and experienced, well trained instructors are able to provide the right balance.
  4. Students with ASD often have their own routines or habits that need to be followed, whether that is bathroom breaks at specific times or ritualistic behaviour. Allowances need to be made for these and the individual student’s needs well understood.
  5. People with ASD can quickly anger if they become frustrated, and noise can also be a trigger for aggravation. Again, 1:1 instruction and experienced, sensitive instruction is needed.
  6. It is important to remember and follow through on promises that are made to a student with ASD, even if these are done just in passing.

“Our son has ASD and has never really understood competition in sports. There is competition and social interaction at the dojo, but the focus is on the individual.” – DOUVRIS parent

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