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Ask the Expert: What Is Martial Arts Therapy and How Can it Help My Child?

Dr. Alisha Griffith-Berkeley, co-founder of a specialized martial arts program in Brooklyn, explains what martial arts therapy is and how it can help children with special needs such as autism, ADHD, and sensory issues.


martial arts therapyWhat is martial arts therapy?

Martial arts therapy is a way of using martial arts to help children have more control over their bodies and to be more aware of their bodies. We use a lot of breathing techniques, focusing techniques, and a lot of discipline in terms of coordinating and getting certain moves to be done in a certain pattern.


How can martial arts therapy benefit a child with special needs?

What I have noticed in children with special needs is that when they have difficulty communicating, sometimes they get so frustrated and they don’t have a proper way of releasing it where it’s okay. They tend to lash out on their parents or the children at school, and they’re not taught where and how it’s okay to have a way of releasing that frustration. The use of martial arts helps provide an appropriate place where you can use combined techniques for breathing and exhaling, and that will then cause a lot of your built-up anxiety and built-up aggression to be released in an appropriate setting.

At this time, we’re focusing on children who have autism, and children with hyperactivity or ADHD, because they have all of this excess energy inside of them. We use martial arts therapy to help them to breathe. They have all this energy, but we help them use it in an appropriate way.

Also, there is an important socialization aspect to it. We create a place to sit and talk about when it’s okay and when it’s not okay to release frustration and the children can encourage each other by giving each other high-fives and helping to build their self-esteem when they accomplish certain things. We make sure to have a moment at the end of each class where we speak about things that we enjoyed with the program that day.


How can martial arts therapy help a child with sensory issues?

It really depends on the type of sensory issues a child has because there are some children that crave touch, the hyper-sensory, and then there are children that run away from touch, the hypo-sensory.

When you’re dealing with a child that’s hypersensitive, they’re craving all of this energy and all of this input. That’s the best candidate to try martial arts therapy because it’s okay to touch them and for us to show them touch and to show them how to move their bodies.

However, when you have a child that is hyposensitive and they don’t really like anything to touch them, or they don’t like any sounds or movements because everything they hear is amplified and they’re easily distracted, it becomes a little harder to have them in a bigger program. If they’re extremely hyposensitive, I would usually recommend to the parent to try a one-on-one class or maybe a two-on-one class because anything pretty much distracts them from getting to learn how to use their bodies.


Does martial arts therapy promote pro-social behavior?

Yes, I think it helps with social behavior because I try to keep our classes at fewer than six children on the mat. Because it’s a small class, they have to interact with each other in a small setting. We teach them to give each other high-fives and we give them drills that they have to do together.


How is martial arts therapy different from a regular martial arts class?

In regular martial arts classes, kids are mostly working by themselves or maybe with one other partner. In our program, I try to encourage—especially since we’re working with children who have special needs and children who have social issues—to work with a different partner and to high-five a different partner, and to go and see how they can help or encourage a partner. That’s part of how we try and get the kids to socialize with each other more.


What age is best to start a child in martial arts therapy?

I think from the age of 3 or 4, depending on the child’s level of maturity. If you have a 3-year-old that is capable of learning a little bit more about his or her body or one who is more aware of his or her body and space, then you can try it with them. I always tell parents to bring their kids in and give them a try. If they’re capable of understanding that this is the place where it’s okay to release, but at home and school it’s not okay, then they’re ready to start learning. But if parents start noticing that kids are still not behaving at home after two or three sessions, they may decide that he or she is not yet ready for a class at this time. But usually by 4 kids are capable of knowing what is and isn’t okay.


Dr. Alisha Griffith-Berkeley is an audiologist (a clinical doctor who specializes in hearing impairments) with the NYC Department of Education and a certified speech-language pathologist who has worked with children with various special needs for more than 12 years. She has earned a second-degree black belt from the Vee Arnis Jujitsu martial arts program and is the cofounder of So S.M.Ar.T. Kids, Inc. She is also the mother of a son diagnosed with autism. Griffith-Berkeley has combined her three passions—speech-language pathology, helping children with special needs, and martial arts—to create a specialized martial arts program.


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