(Ed. note: the featured image is to illustrate the below-mentioned Gracie Triangle and how the triangle relates to autism treatment.)
As both a coach in a variety of combat sports, and a researcher in autism, I have had some unique experiences combining these two fields of interest. Many experienced coaches out there have had the pleasure of having a student somewhere on the autistic spectrum, generally on the high functioning end of the spectrum, and many autistic people I have known have a very strong interest in combat sports.
Autism is characterized, in part, by social disconnectedness that can present unique challenges to both coaches and athletes. Because combat sports are trained in teams, a student self-imposed to sitting in the corner and not interacting much is generally how a coach figures out one of their student’s might be on the spectrum. This can alienate the coach and the neurotypical students (those students without autism). However, with a love of teaching, most coaches will make the effort to work with the autistic student and find it to be very fulfilling.
In fact, while autistic people have limitations that present challenges to them, these are often ameliorated in time, and the reward is substantial for both teacher and student.
For example, physical clumsiness is often associated with autism, but in my research, it seems to be a trait that goes away in time in any activity that is practiced regularly. So while the autistic athlete might seem awkward in their movements at first, in time they may develop a high level of grace and power in combat sports.
People with autism also have a markedly different capacity for learning. In particular, those with high functioning autism can learn a topic of interest at a shockingly fast rate with increased depth and a perspective unique when compared to a neurotypical person. Also, a coach may note a proclivity for sport history, athlete names, lineages and so forth and should encourage the autistic person to talk about it, which can boost their desire for socialization.
Because thought processes are in some ways different for people with autism, learning the physical part of the sport is often unique as well. As a coach you might see bursts of creativity and rapid learning following long periods of stagnation. During these periods of rapid learning, coaches will be in a good position to support the development of the athlete at that time, as they will pick up new knowledge like a sponge and flourish. If they are interested, they would make excellent instructors for a move they have recently learned, as their ability to point out the details to the other students will be extremely precise.
One such example of rapid learning was from a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu student I spoke with who has Asperger’s Syndrome (a kind of high-functioning autism). He told me about his experience when he first learned about the Gracie Triangle. The triangle shape is the symbol of the founding family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Once he learned about where the idea for the triangle symbol came from, his game improved a great deal in a very short amount of time.
According to gracieacademy.com, the triangle is a symbol of BJJ at least partly because this geometrical shape represents the stabile base of a BJJ master. As the autistic student described it to me, he would think about the shape that a person’s body makes in contact with the floor. It’s probably more apt to imagine a four- or more-sided shape, since we have hands, elbows, knees, feet and a head that could all be in contact with the floor. He said to imagine every point of contact on a floor that a person makes with some part of their body, and then draw a line between each point.
The student told me that trying to memorize where the bases were strongest and weakest in each position was too difficult. Once he learned about the Gracie Triangle he would instead imagine the shapes created by a person’s contact points with the floor. He became much more aware of how to sweep opponents toward the weakest side of the base, which he said was generally toward the longest line in the shape. He also developed a much stronger base himself because he was always aware of the shapes he made on the floor and which directions he was most vulnerable.
Another trait that many families that include autistic children have noted is increased aggression. Indeed, many autistic adults have learned to curb this tendency but admit that the underlying aggression is still there.
Many autistic people may find training in combat sports to have a therapeutic effect. It can be a safe and productive outlet for the internal aggression, while also providing a close and physical camaraderie with a team. Both can be very healthy improvements to an autistic person’s life that they may not otherwise get.
Additionally, many autistic people suffer from social timidity or even fear. A combination of socialization, development of friendships and the physical conditioning and skill developed by combat sports seems to go a very long way in helping the autistic person with social skills and confidence. That combination can assist with a wide variety of tasks like job seeking that can profoundly improve the autistic person’s life.
A final notable effect of autism is that some people are hypersensitive to certain sensations. This is not always the case, but many autistic people can be bothered or even incapacitated by sounds, lights and even light physical contact. This usually amounts to an irritation, but can be much worse.
Hypersensitivity seems like a major disadvantage for a combat athlete, of course, but it’s usually isolated to light physical contact, such as the feeling of clothing on the skin. Intense physical pressure, the type you find in combat sports, is actually tolerated better by most autistic people than even neurotypical people. I have been told by autistic wrestlers and MMA fighters that intense positions like a high-pressure side-mount or even being stacked onto their shoulders is no problem at all, and in fact quite comfortable.
But that’s not all. Autistic people have also been found to typically possess a substantially higher pain threshold than normal. For minor scrapes and bruises this might make them seem bullet proof, but coaches should be aware that an autistic person may even ignore an injury, not verbalizing it at all.
So long as the athlete and coach stay aware of injuries, an autistic person may actually have an advantage over a neurotypical athlete in high-pressure situations or with pain, but not injury-inducing submissions.
While questions regarding autistic athletes abound, the careful coach can use information like this to help bring the most out of their autistic students, not just helping them cope with their differences, but actually helping them become elite athletes with unique advantages.
About the author: Doug Dupont is a writer and athlete, and has been a coach and nutritionist in combat sports for 16 years. Being a huge fan of MMA, Doug feels like a kid in a candy store having coached some of the best athletes in the world. When he cornered a world title fight it felt like a dream come true and like any fan, Doug still can’t believe he was such an integral part of the success of numerous athletes. Now he is focused as a writer, focused on topics like nutrition, fitness, wellness and sports.