Updated: Apr 17
Training in Taekwon-do can increase confidence and help to develop social skills in kids on the Autistic Spectrum. For 14-year-old Kieran, who has Aspergers Syndrome and Sensory Autism, training in Taekwon-do has been life-changing...
Kieran Hodgson is a rising star in the martial arts community. At only 14, this impressive young man has competed in national and international Taekwon-do competitions, amassed a huge collection of medals - 14 of them gold - and was awarded disability sports person of the year at the City of Worcester Sports Awards (2018).
He has been training at Worcestershire Martial Arts for 2 ½ years, is now 4th kup (blue belt) and has recently become more involved with helping out in classes and teaching other students.
Kieran has Aspergers Syndrome and Sensory Autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause difficulties with socialising and communication and, sometimes, movement and balance. The spectrum is huge and extremely varied - everyone on the spectrum experiences Autism in a different way. His mum, Vickie, explains that as Kieran is high-functioning most people can’t tell that he has Aspergers but “on the sensory aspect, he can be quite complex”.
Kieran has been trying various martial arts since he was 4-years-old and absolutely loves martial arts. The challenge for the family has been in finding a martial arts school where Kieran feels comfortable and is supported with his Autism.
Some environments can be challenging for kids with Autism, but that doesn't have to be a 'barrier': with the right support, they can thrive
For a person on the Autistic spectrum, noisy, busy environments can often cause anxiety and new environments and meeting lots of new people can be challenging as well. Kieran says that he “doesn’t like high-pitched noise”, can sometimes find new environments and meeting new people challenging (though he has become more confident in those situations now) and sometimes needs reassurance when doing line-work in Taekwon-do class.
Vickie has heaps of praise for Worcestershire Martial Arts and the school’s instructors, particularly head instructor Sally Monks (5th Dan), who she says have been “amazing” with supporting Kieran. Vickie says that she felt “reassured” even from her initial contact with Sally, before Kieran went to his first class.
Vickie: The guidance and reassurance is always there.
Kieran says that he really likes his instructors and peers and that he has been supported every step of the way - during training, at competitions and in gradings: “They look out for me... Sally can tell when I’m stressed… she’ll tell me I’m doing well [in line-work], without me having to ask”.
Kieran is able to feel in control when at the dojang as he has been given the option to train in the smaller room after a bad week at school, when being in a big group might have been more stressful, and he has the option to just grab his stuff and go if he ever needed to leave early. Kieran says that he hasn’t had to do either of these things so far and feels very comfortable in the club, but that the options are there is reassuring for him and his mum. Vickie feels comfortable with dropping Kieran off at the dojang and knows that the instructors will look after him.
Kieran: a lot of people don’t realise that it's the little things, like structure and routine that make a big difference.
Routine is very important for a lot of people with Autism. Kieran says that the instructors and other students “know and respect [his] routine” when in the dojang - he prefers to put his bag in the same spot and to stand in the same corner when first going in to the dojang and warming up. Being able to keep this routine allows him to feel more comfortable in the space.
Taekwon-do can increase self-confidence
Kieran says his confidence has “doubled” since he started training at Worcestershire Martial Arts and that this confidence is expanding out into his daily life and having a positive impact.
Kieran: It has changed me completely. I can deal with sensory stuff [and] more people... I look forward to Thursdays and Sundays. It’s a release of energy. I get a lot of energy sometimes.
His mum adds that for Kieran to be able to have a positive outlet to help manage excess energy has also helped to calm things down at home. She says that “the confidence he has gained has affected his whole life… now he is more confident with public transport and going in to shops - these things used to be challenging”.
She says that “before Kieran started Taekwon-do, he didn’t like to be touched or brushed [against in passing]... the contact aspect of sparring presented a challenge. But now he’s much better and more comfortable with sparring”.
Kieran: I couldn't imagine not doing Taekwon-do.
Vickie’s pride at how much Kieran has achieved, and how much more comfortable he seems in himself since he started training, is obvious. They are both beaming as Vickie says that Kieran’s school work has improved since he started training and that even his teachers “can tell his confidence has improved”. Kieran says that the real benefit for him has been gaining the confidence to “socialise more” at school. “[Before he started Taekwon-do] he wouldn’t speak to people unless they spoke to him,” Vickie says and Kieran adds: “Now I don’t stop talking!”
Taekwon-do can help to deal with school bullying
Unfortunately Kieran has experienced bullying in the past, but he now has the confidence to stick up for himself and also for his friends.
Vickie: As parents we have noticed Taekwon-do has enabled Kieran to stand up for himself - not physically but mentally - if he thinks something isn’t right he’s now able to say he’s not happy.
One of the benefits of Taekwon-do is that students are taught (and incorporate over their time training) a set of positive moral values, such as courtesy (one of the five tenets) and respect for all. As well as learning self-defence, Taekwon-do can also help kids to deal with bullying by helping them to realise that they are equally deserving of courtesy and respect and don’t have to ‘put up with’ being bullied. Vickie is also pleased that Kieran has made a new set of friends through Taekwon-do: “He has friends in school but it’s nice that he now has friends outside of school as well”.
Vickie would highly recommend training in Taekwon-do and Worcestershire Martial Arts for other kids with Autism (and to their parents). A recent psychological study into the benefits of traditional martial arts for kids on the Autistic Spectrum has found that traditional martial arts - such as Taekwon-do - can improve the ‘physical symptoms’ of Autism. The study suggests that kids with Autism may have a natural aptitude for patterns because they are heavily structured. Kieran says that he “prefers patterns to sparring” because he likes the structure of patterns. Vickie adds: “For an autistic person patterns are amazing because there’s only one way of doing it”.
Vickie: This club is different. The instructors make the difference… they are amazing. They care about his [Kieran’s] welfare.
Vickie says that Kieran being part of Worcestershire Martial Arts “has benefitted the whole family… Kieran’s dad, Martin, also has Aspergers and sensory issues and he feels comfortable going to the dojang and accompanying Kieran to competitions… It has brought out his [Martin’s] confidence even though he doesn’t do Taekwon-do… and made him feel comfortable as well”. Vickie feels that Worcestershire Martial Arts is definitely a “family club” and says that her and Kieran’s dad always feel “involved” and “welcome” as well.
Disability is not a 'barrier' to training in martial arts
Kieran says that the “misconceptions” surrounding Autism are what “get [to] him the most”. He doesn’t want to be treated differently from other kids and appreciates that he can just “be [himself]” in the dojang and that he has support when he needs it, but he’s not singled out or treated as ‘different’ as he sometimes has been in other environments in the past.
Possibly the biggest benefit of training in Taekwon-do and being part of a supportive, inclusive club for Kieran is becoming more comfortable in himself and now being able to talk about his Autism and to communicate when he’s stressed or needs reassurance.
Kieran: If it wasn’t for the club… I wouldn’t want to sit here and talk about Autism.
It’s great that Kieran has the confidence to talk about Autism, because the most effective way to challenge the misconceptions and myths is to talk about it. Kieran is fast becoming an inspiration for other young people with disabilities and for the Taekwon-do community as a whole.
Vickie: You wouldn’t think a Taekwon-do club would have such a big impact, but it has had a huge impact. It really is a special club.
Worcestershire Martial Arts has students with all kinds of disabilities and mental health conditions, all training together and supporting each other. Kieran would encourage other people with Autism or anyone looking to improve their confidence to try Taekwon-do and not to delay too long. He says, of having low confidence, “the longer [you leave it], the harder it is to gain self-confidence”.
Kieran wants to continue training in Taekwon-do and to achieve black belt and beyond. He has future aspirations to “teach or do something PE related” and is interested in competing in big competitions, especially in patterns.