Parents are frightened. Recent headlines report “Study Increases Prevalence of Autism” and “Nearly 1 Percent of US Children Have Autism.” Parents of boys are particularly worried. The Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are diagnosed four times more in boys than girls.
In a health club outside Boston, I learned about one such seven year-old named Jake who struggles with significant developmental problems. He’s slow and awkward in his movements, misunderstands requests, and can’t pick up on the nuanced social signals the rest of us process without a second thought.
He’s also fighting back. He’s learning to move his small feet like a boxer. His little hands are wrapped in cotton strips and shoved inside swollen Everlast gloves. He stands upright and throws punches into the hand-held pads of his trainer, Carlos Hernandez. On the surface, a boy like Jake should fail at this. Boxing demands extreme energy output and intense focus. The movements required fall somewhere between a raging bull and an accomplished ballerina. The reaction times are swift, and full-body coordination is essential.
His trainer never hits back, and never allows kids to hit one another. It’s not about fighting. It’s about retraining neurons to work together and respond better to the immediate environment. In this case, the environment isn’t a classroom where Jake sits passively, listening to programmatic lessons. Here, he experiences a tough, powerful man moving around him, coaching him to stand, aim, twist, and hit moving targets. Hernandez isn’t impressed with bravado or loud sounding punches. He’s interested in getting basics right and improving coordination and strength.
It’s an unusual match – severe developmental disorders and a gritty contact sport. You won’t find this approach in any textbook or recommended by specialists in Autism. Jake’s trainer is a former professional boxer, martial arts expert, and has no training in working with special needs children. Yet, he’s making progress with Jake where most standard approaches to helping ASD kids fail or plod along without appreciable results.
There’s much to learn to from this unusual pair. Physical activity is learning-in-motion, and as important for boys as lessons on reading, writing and arithmetic. Standardized tests and lesson plans don’t fully meet the neurological needs of most boys, let alone boys with ASD who struggle in language and communication skills. Boys as a group require much vigorous daily exercise, free play, and real-world outdoor time. Research shows that hyperactivity, aggression, distraction, and impulsivity abate when boys get moving and outdoors.
Trends over the last twenty years have sequestered children indoors and loaded them with sedentary, one-size-fits-all learning. This has lead not only to a national epidemic in pediatric obesity, but to disproportionately diagnosing boys with developmental problems, including ASD. Where medical professionals are placing more boys with ASD onto powerful psychiatric drugs, leading to chronic obesity and diabetes, a few hours a week of intense, highly individualized physical activity needs to be considered as part of the approach.
At this point, it’s unknown if Jake’s condition will improve as a direct consequence of these lessons. Jake’s mother has told Hernandez that she’s amazed at what Jake is doing so far and wants her son to continue. Jake’s trainer also teaches surfing in the warmer months. He’s considering Jake might be a candidate and tells me it’s a different set of brain challenges for kids. He starts them in the pool, then they learn balance, how to read the water, and there’s much confidence building involved.
Hernandez smiles and adds, “Jake’s not a bad little boxer either. He’ll get one thing out of it. At least no one will mess with him.”