Grappling with Neurodiversity

Everyone’s brain operates differently. For the average individual, brain functions and overall behaviors are expected to meet measures of growth created by our immediate family, schools, communities, and society at-large. For those who veer either slightly, or significantly, outside of these expected trajectories, their brain functions could be classified as ‘neurodivergent’.

Neurodivergent is a non-medical umbrella term that describes people with variations in their mental functions, and it includes the condition that my youngest son and I share, autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

ASD is itself a broad category, but it’s often characterized by challenging behaviors centered around social interactions and communication.

My four-year-old ‘mini-me’ and I share many neurodivergent behaviors and/or symptoms, most of which center within the sensory realm–our touch perception is hypersensitive, we both have somewhat inhibited nociception (i.e., we likely don’t feel pain the way in which others do), and our auditory senses are easily and always overloaded. All of these traits can make interactions with other people really uncomfortable, which leads to the end result of deepening social anxiety and difficulties making friends, among other challenges.

I’m definitely not qualified to offer true occupational therapist-style recommendations. However, I do want to posit that grappling and martial arts have helped me tremendously, and although he’s still very young, wrestling and ‘intentional rough-housing’ with me and his older brother seem to provide positive benefits for my son.

Why? In the interest of your time, I’ll give you my short-ish answer…if you read our aforementioned sensory and social symptoms, you might notice that grappling, with its touching, intended outcome of physical pain/submission, and general sensory over-stimulation–oh, and did I mention there’s a buncha people on the mat!!!–would be a triggering experience for us.

Indeed, grappling seems like an allegory for existence itself. At least for my neurodivergent brain, so very little in the world seems within my control, and life always feels like a continuous battle to hold onto whatever power I have to direct my own life. I imagine my son feels the same way.

But I believe that grappling has helped me and my son create a sense of order for our sensory challenges and social interactions, the results of which are indeed therapeutic. Our time on the mat allows us better and more precise ‘guidelines’, if you will, for the way in which we relate with others, and how we can positively inhabitant our bodies in the face of overwhelming outside stimuli.

And I’ll save this for a future post, but I trust that our martial arts practice allows us to exhibit and benefit from some of the strengths of our ASD traits–like being strong visual learners and obsessing over spinning movements–which has been absolutely great for our self-esteem.

If you read this and are neurodivergent–or have a child who has ASD, ADHD, or any other form of neurodivergence–my encouragement, and I write this knowing my only qualification in offering such advice is having autism, is to at least seek out whether there’s a good martial arts school in your area. What to look for when it seems as if there’s a dojo on every corner? Well, as you know, I’m a strong proponent of hybrid grappling (!), but more importantly, see if (1) the school’s values are clearly articulated, and (2) if said values are instituted in a way that builds a culture supportive of you and/or your child’s needs. For starters, HHGC’s core values are listed below, and truth be told, they were envisioned with the needs of neurodiverse individuals in mind, including those of yours truly and the superhero pictured above…

Hope to see you on the mats soon!

Our Core Values:

  • Integrity above all else
  • Commitment to family and community
  • Embrace diversity
  • Continuous improvement and innovation
  • Tangible, lasting results for all students

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