Grappling with Neurodiversity–More Thoughts

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition to understand, in my opinion. That said, the pervading symptoms are a little easier to discern, like difficulty making eye contact or showing empathy, i.e., social and communicative skills frequently impaired in those of us with ASD.

I’ve written previously about the lessons from ecological psychology that can be applied to improve our training in combat sports. But does ‘interpersonal synergy’ or ‘synchronized behavior’ apply to both the grappler and one struggling with ASD? Turns out it might!

Researchers have reasoned that people with ASD may be less able to detect and exploit information about social affordances. If you’ve read my previous post on combat sports training, you might recognize the esoteric term ‘affordances’–these are benefits or opportunities that we can recognize in our environments.

These social affordances have also been referenced as ‘rhythms of the world‘. So, people with autism like me and my youngest son are less likely to be pulled into the natural orbit of another person’s–or people’s–‘rhythms’, and as a result, we struggle with establishing interpersonal synergies. For better or worse, all this feels so true to me…

Studies have clearly demonstrated how those of us who are neurodiverse quite literally struggle with interpersonal rhythm and synergies. For instance, researchers asked a group of children to sit in rocking chairs while an adult caregiver–also seated in a rocking chair–read to them. Interestingly, almost all the kids would synchronize the rocking of their chairs among themselves and with that of the adult. The exceptions? The children who were previously diagnosed with ASD.

What does this have to do with grappling, and how might this martial art in particular benefit kids and adults with ASD? Well, while practicing grappling, two people are intensely engaged and driven by their perception of affordances to attack and defend. As a result, a match will self-organize into one interpersonal synergy or rhythm, where the perceptions and actions of grapplers are coupled. Think of it as rocking chairs moving in unison.

But, beyond synchronization, to be successful a grappler needs to embrace brinkmanship: he or she needs to be aware of their action boundaries and purposefully act within the outer limits of their capabilities. You must take calculated risks at a moment’s notice, and accept the results, win or lose.

So to connect these rambling points into a theory…Grappling can greatly help neurodiverse individuals since it demands both interpersonal synergy/rhythm and brinksmanship (i.e., pushing past personal boundaries), all within a somewhat less frantic or complex social setting.

For me and my four-year-old, grappling seems to address the very essence of autism in a direct yet therapeutic way. We’re able to engage in interpersonal rhythms and push our social boundaries without feeling overwhelmed–the interactions in which we engage on the mat have clear borders, expectations, and proposed outcomes.

(We also get to do a lot of cartwheels and somersaults, and I’ve noticed that spinning and inversions are movements that autistic people gravitate toward–I’ll elaborate on that in a future post!)

Again, I realize I’m not a professional therapist–I’m only relating my own struggles and ways in which I’ve personally found some relief.

That said, if you are neurodiverse and are considering grappling and/or martial arts training, yet feel intimidated about entering another social realm, I totally get it! My advice would be to check out the prospective club’s core values. If the school doesn’t value diversity, find another place to practice. If the school doesn’t even have articulated core values, find another place to practice.

For comparison, here are HHGC’s core values:

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

Drop us a line if you have questions or reactions. Hope to see you on the mats soon!

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