A ‘90’s schoolyard, somewhere in Suburbia. The children are happily playing soccer, with their teachers as referees. But one chubby girl sits aside. She is not joining at all, not even looking. She is playing with a stick, quite monotonously and repetitively trying to draw perfect straight lines in the air. “You see, we just cannot have her join…” – the teacher explained to the girl’s father. “She doesn’t understand the rules and will just try to get the ball in order to bounce it and roll around with it, refusing to let go. Then of course, the other children will get annoyed and start kicking her. So that is why we as teachers decided that she should be on the side, so that the other kids can enjoy their game.” The father shrugged. “Well, if she likes to play with that stick, let her do so.” The chubby girl pretended not to have overheard this conversation and continued her stick play, striking and cutting through the air, imagining herself to be fighting alongside Xena Warrior Princess, or as the fourth Samurai Pizza Cat or the fifth Ninja Turtle.
As you might have guessed, the chubby little girl described above was me, a decade or two before I received my autism diagnosis. Since that time, much has changed for me, also in the field of fitness. Nowadays, I do not sit at the side anymore, I train roughly five times a week and participate in workshops, seminars, obstacle runs and various (international) championships. The little girl would not have believed it, but I even won some shiny medals and a beautiful trophy – the by-products of my dō. In this essay, I will try to describe what practising budo can be like for a person on the autistic spectrum, with all the different benefits, but with a recognition of the obstacles on the road as well. By writing this ‘auti-ethnography’, I hope to inform and inspire people of all neurotypes to work together to build a world full of inclusive dojo.
“A very serious form of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” the psychiatrist said solemnly – thus performing the speech act that officially labelled me. Somewhere on the third of my life, this was a starting point for me, to re-write my narrative – I am not crazy, my brain is just wired differently. My label – “autism” – refers to a range of complex neurological aspects, but just as the label on the jam pot might list (some of) the ingredients and tells little about the taste and one’s experience of eating the jam, the label that a person likes to identify him-/herself with tells little about the lived experiences. In Japanese, you would spell “autism” as 自閉症 aka “self-closed [cloistered] syndrome”. That resonates with my experiences of seeing the world as from a fish bowl, or even: from the helmet of the cosmonaut from another planet. Moreover, this description already hints at the answer to a frequently asked question: “how can you go from sitting at the side during school gym to being fit and enjoying sports?” By choosing a sport in which you can close yourself off.
For me, finding a sport that fitted was not an easy task. Encouraged by my parents, as a kid I joined an after-school gymnastics club. The interactions with peers were incomprehensible and inimitable, however, I learnt to jump on the trampoline and walk on a small beam. This must have done wonders for my coordination and balance, but it was not enough. With autism often comes a lack of spatial and body awareness, and therefore I had a double disadvantage: I could not compete with my peers, and when I finally got ready to do gymnastics, the other kids were already much more advanced than me. In the Dutch children’s choir I joined, we sometimes had to do some dancing. Obese and excluded from school sports, it was not that I disliked to move my body, but I just couldn’t manage keep up with the tempo nor could I sync my movements with other people’s. Therefore, I decided that I was better in activities other than sports and when someone asked about it, I advocated that horseback riding and shooting crossbow (which I love) both are very sportive activities, not to be underestimated.
In high school I usually played truant during the gym classes, inspired by classmates who claimed to be on their period every single Tuesday. But one day, everybody joined, as there was a special workshop. It was called “Barokai” by the workshop host and centred around self defence for girls. We broke wooden boards in half by hitting and kicking, and I thought that it was very cool. Moreover, I really liked the deep philosophical concepts involved. But this barokai was just for a few training sessions, so I quickly forgot about it. Until about three years ago. After a second failed attempt at gymnastics, my awesome (and super sporty) boyfriend and I watched some YouTube’s sports in order to choose something of exercise for me. “Maybe I can do barokai?” – I suggested. We googled it and barokai turned out to be as Dutch as windmills and Gouda cheese, and not practised anywhere near me. But as the memory was pleasant, I decided to take trial lessons in martial arts. That’s where my dō started.
My very first training was wado ryu karate. I massively enjoyed it and felt happy – ready to live my life, to pursue my dreams and goals. My self-esteem went up, every little step forward felt like an enormous victory and because sensei was proud of me, I sometimes felt good about myself and my body as well. I started to train more often, not to be “thin and tight”, but because it makes me happy. Karate made me feel more energetic, fitter and more alive than ever. I got more focus, a better memory and more creativity. Above all, I experienced an enormous calmness, the same kind of serenity that I now experience as sempai Inti and I start scuba diving and everything finally silences around me and in my head. I learnt to recognize and sometimes even generate states of mind like Shoshin, Mushin, Fudoshin and Zanshin. Budo brought silence in my overloaded brain, a place to observe and let go of my thoughts, as if in the eye of the hurricane. Of course it will take many more years of training and practise to override all of my stress reactions, to keep relaxed and to regain mental control, but it will be more than worth it. As Peter Boylan – aka the Budo Bum – so eloquently puts it: “Once you can maintain mushin while people are trying to hit you with a big stick, or choke you unconscious, it becomes less of a stretch to maintain that mental state under the stress you encounter outside the dojo.”
My brain on Budo
While one is performing sports, one’s brain releases many neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers) such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These “happy chemicals” help you regulate your mood and provide you with a sense of well-being. People with autism often have a lower threshold for the effects of neurological impulses (e.g. alcohol, but also “runner’s high”), and so happy chemicals work even better for me. Mind-body exercises have a positive effect on oxytocinergic and serotoninergic systems; therefore, martial arts contribute towards improved synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and serotonin which modulate complex social emotional behaviours (Zou et al. 2017).
Research indicates that including budo and other martial arts among therapeutic interventions for people with ASD contributes towards significant improvement in social communication, cognition and language (Sasaki, 2000). Martial arts such as budo are based on stereotyped and repeated movements which are excellent for physical and mental training (Draeger, 1974). The various physical exercises allow individuals to socialise with each other hence improvement in social connections, self-competence and self-esteem (DeFilippis & Wagner, 2016). Moreover, as martial arts were modelled on Buddhist principles, they emphasise peace of mind for anger and stress relief (Szabolcs, Koteles & Szabo, 2017).
Because budo is so good for my brain, I am intrinsically motivated to train as often as possible – even when it is difficult. And it can often be troublesome for me, as I am very sensitive to neurological impulses. Sounds are louder, lights are brighter, smells and tastes are sharper and so on. I don’t have a filter that brings stimuli to the background, so that everything always comes in just as heavy. My brain always goes into overdrive to process all these stimuli and this exhausts me very quickly (read: migraine). And that is precisely why it is so important that I do budo. Especially performing kata feels like cleaning up my head. And I am not the only one on the spectrum for whom performing kata has such a beneficial effect. “Kata techniques training consistently decreases stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder” headlines a much-cited paper by Fatimah Bahrami et al (2012).
As any budoka knows, your dō does not end with you walking out of the dojo. Through my budo there is improvement and growth in all aspects of my life. In my experience, the benefits of budo comprise physical, social and mental elements. Practising martial arts improves motor skills, balance, stamina etc and it helps to regulate stereotype movements (the autistic “stimming”, eg fluttering, hand-flapping and rocking). The dojo is a controlled environment – safe, predictable, inclusive and with clear rules – which creates the peace and space to improve social skills. Some of my best friends were made in the dojo and in addition, it is inspiring to find new role models in budo. Young martial artists such as Ethan Fineshriber and Eloy Arends show how martial arts can improve the development of confidence and self-esteem in youngsters with autism. Mentally, budo helps with focus and therefore with letting go (eg of negative thoughts) as well. On the wrapping paper of some kendo materials, four characters were printed: 一期一会 (Ichi-go ichi-e). Literally “one time, one meeting”, this concept describes the treasuring of the unrepeatable nature of a moment. As my friend Mana explained it to me: “Once gone, forever gone. So you need to do, work, play, live, right for this moment, always. In other words, give your utmost every moment of your life.” And that is what I try to do, both in- and outside of the dojo.
Of course, budo is not a cure for all and the whole process of going to the dojo with everything I need (of which some things also had to get in and out of the laundry on time) also costs a lot of mental energy. It is incredibly difficult for me to remember everything and to do it at the right time. In kindergarten, I failed the “tie your shoelaces”-diploma and now I regularly get entangled with my himo, obi and sageo… or simply with myself. Being in a society that was not designed for my neurotype will always remain a challenge. Sometimes indirectly as well: because of my autism I can work less than I would like to and so I have less income as well. Budo equipment and many budo training sessions, memberships, seminars, competitions and so on cost money – and I often don’t dare say in the dojo that I can’t afford it, because I get worried that I am a burden and/or people will think I do not prioritise my budo or so. Worries like these have an effect on my training as well. In general, I am easily overwhelmed and confused, and I can get enormously stressed and anxious when I think that I might be doing something wrong. It also stresses me out when two senpai are quarrelling, when I think that an exercise is too difficult or when there is not enough positive feedback. For me and many others with autism, it is extremely important that sensei and sempai praise us for our efforts regardless of the results, as many of us have been punished for trying and failing too often. Together with one of my best budo friends, I often joke about ‘Perfect Sensei’, who should be encouraging us with “a punch, a kiss and a present” for every attempt we make.
Last central training, I passed my kendo ikkyu. But I did not even celebrate it, as I was simply too tired from stress and overstimulation. The road towards the exam had been extremely tough for me – think of daily solicitude and recurring nightmares. And the only reason I succeeded was through the help and positivity of the people in my dojo. My beloved senpai and kohai, who really dragged me through, and sensei, who metaphorically kicked his heels up with joy and broke out the champagne when I finally managed to move my body in a way that vaguely resembled a chiisai men. His encouragement made me proud, happy and determined to try the exam. For me, this experience resonated with the motto on the Yushinkan website – 昨日の我に今日は勝て – roughly translated as “today, I shall conquer / defeat my yesterday’s self”. There is no sense in comparing myself with others in the dojo, the only thing that I need to do is to present the best possible version of me in that particular moment and in that particular context.
The road ahead
All these positive experiences give me confidence for the future. I think that budo can make a substantial difference in the lives of people with autism. And also that people with autism can make a real contribution to the dojo. But I realise that I am writing this from a privileged position, as I feel extremely lucky with my sensei and senpai. My road is paved with their endless patience and unlimited positivity. Two sensei are already over a year trying to teach me some bo kumite, another one always provides me with the best mnemonics (“ezelsbruggetjes”) to conquer the chaos in my head. Also, I am grateful that a sensei told me that I can always send him a message if I worry about something.
My sensei and senpai provide me with the safety net, above which I dare to balance, to try things out. Just like last year, I made a whole bucket list of New Year’s Resolutions, of which many are budo related. I would like to learn all twelve ZNKR iaido kata, participate in certain competitions, get a higher grade, help in organising the next Martial Arts Festival in Utrecht, become more flexible by combining my strength trainings with some more dance/pilates and by stretching more often, and improve my grappling, joint locks and throws by taking lessons in jiujitsu as well… for which I already bought a “strippenkaart” (prepaid card), so I passed the point of no return. Trying out new things remains terribly scary for me, but at the same time I’m looking forward to it.
I only just started my dō but already found out that the autistic dō is the road less travelled by – and that makes all the difference.
Bahrami, F., Movahedi, A., Marandi, S.M., et al. (2012). Kata techniques training consistently decreases stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Developmental Disabilities 33(4): 1183–1193.
DeFilippis, M. & Wagner, K.D. (2016). Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents. Psychopharmacology 46(2): 18-41. Retrieved from:
Dreager, D. F. (1974). Modern Bujutsu & Budo – The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill. p. 11.
Polak, E., Sikora, J. & Rachwal, M. (2019). An aikido-based intervention supporting the therapy of a child with autism spectrum disorders – A case study. Ido Movement for Culture 19(1S):67-76.
Sasaki, M. (2000). Aspects of Autism in Japan Before and After the Introduction of TEACCH. International Journal of Mental Health 29(2): 3-18. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41344935?seq=1
Szabolcs, Z., Koteles, F. & Szabo, A. (2017). Physiological and psychological benefits of aikido training: a systematic review. Archives of Budo 13: 271-283.
Zou et al. (2017). Martial arts for health benefits in children and youth with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review. Archives of Budo 13:79-92.