Subscribe to our quarterly email newsletter 「ICM News」 to receive recent news about ICM, diverse writings by experts and youth, and relevant information.
Title [Voices of Youth] Equitable proposal of macrostructure for the planning of martial arts classes for ASD students
Caio Amaral Gabriel
Psychotherapist with postgraduate degree in Neuropsychology
+55 (11) 99206-0881
Patrícia Mattos Taveira do Amaral
Speech therapist with postgraduate degree in Neuropsychopedagogy
+55 (11) 97696-9273
Ricardo Bezerra Gabriel
Physical educator with postgraduate degree in Playfulness, Recreation and Leisure
+55 (11) 97681-5372
Recent studies demonstrate the effectiveness of martial arts to optimize the well-being of students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (Garcia et al., 2021; Rivera et al., 2020; Bell et al., 2016; Bremer et al., 2016; Bahrami et al., 2015; Movahedi et al., 2013; Bahrami et al., 2012), favoring the promotion of inclusive, equitable and quality education, which integrates the Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO & UNESCO-ICM, 2019).
In this context, this article aims to provide a theoretical framework based on Polyvagal Theory (PT), a modern understanding of autonomic nervous system (ANS) (Porges, 2011), and the Sequence of Engagement (SE) (Winfrey & Perry, 2021), to help elucidate the mechanisms that support the effectiveness of martial arts for autistic students and provide practical insights in order to contribute with class planning and to a learning-friendly training environment.
For PT, connection with other human beings is a biological imperative through which people's ANS “neurocepts” safety, the key to the neurophysiological co-regulation of individuals, and is primarily achieved through successful social relationships. On the other hand, the absence of safety neuroception impairs health, education and learning experiences.
Autistic students may experience the absence of safety neuroception, eliciting the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or dorsal vagal system (DVS), due to overload of internal and external sensory stimuli that are not efficiently processed despite the senses themselves functioning perfectly (Caldwell & Horwood, 2008). These consistent experiences of the SNS or DVS autonomic states:
(1) Inhibits the social engagement system (SES), characterized by the connection of cranial nerves V, VII, IX, XI and the ventral branch of the vagus nerve (X) with the heart, which together are involved in the interpersonal connections, creativity, restoration and healing of human beings (Porges, 2011);
(2) Impairs the corporal schema and body image development processes. The student, absorbed in SNS or DVS autonomic states, is less connected with the world and less prone to interpersonal integration process through SES, without developing a strong corporal schema and the self-image necessary to interacting with the world (Bridges, 2015);
(3) Contribute to the reduction of vagal tone, narrowing the students’ window of tolerance (Ogden et al., 2006), that is, the healthy regulation capacity of arousal, while the increase in vagal tone favors the resilience of the ANS through the action of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve on the heart (Porges, 2011).
Thus, in an adaptive way, the child develops coping strategies with the objective of self-regulation, which include flight, fight or freeze responses (Caldwell & Horwood, 2008). In this way, the autistic student can face obstacles to their learning and will not fully enjoy the benefits of martial arts in conditions similar or equal to neurotypical students.
In this sense, to promote inclusion and equity, it is necessary to develop a macrostructure for martial art classes that favors the safety neuroception, what can be achieved through SE, an approach who postulates that the optimization of health and education is more effective when it is carried out replicating human neurodevelopment, in a sequential manner, in a bottom-up approach, starting with brainstem regulation, going to the diencephalon, then to the limbic system and, finally, to the cortex (Winfrey & Perry, 2021).
Brainstem regulation involves the modulation of sensory elements present in the training environment. An organized, structured and minimalist environment is recommended, with visually demarcated areas, neutral colors, soft and without patterns, light control, visual materials that make the sequence of events understandable and predictable, attenuation of sounds and odor neutralization (Caldwell & Horwood, 2008; Horowitz & Röst, 2007).
For the diencephalon, the instructor can elicit the appropriate level of students’ arousal by intentionally selecting practices that, in a predictable and orderly manner, in small and progressive tasks, stimulate the proprioceptors in the muscles, joints and ligaments; stimulate the sense of balance; develop the body scheme and self-image; reduce hypersensitivity; and favor motor planning. (Horowitz & Röst, 2007).
For the limbic system, the instructor can seek SES activation through relational processes, including the use of nonverbal communication to connect with students, intentionally using facial expressions, prosody, and gestures to convey safety (Ogden et al., 2006); dynamic and challenging processes of antagonistic engagement that end in a sense of altruism and mutual respect (Kimmel & Rogler, 2019); and the playful approach (Panksepp & Biven, 2012) of the training.
Finally, cortex involves the construction of narratives (stories, metaphors, parables, dilemmas), journaling, activities for fixing the content of the class, class summary, which function as powerful organizational tools that promote neural integration (Cozolino, 2013).
Together, these strategies favor flexibly bringing martial arts to the students; rather than wanting the students to rigidly adapt to martial arts, promoting a rewarding experience that equitably supports the well-being and the development of autistic students.
Bahrami, F., Movahedi, A., Marandi, S. M., & Abedi, A. (2012). Kata techniques training consistently decreases stereotypy in children with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33(4), 1183–1193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2012.01.018
Bahrami, F., Movahedi, A., Marandi, S. M., & Sorensen, C. (2015). The Effect of Karate Techniques Training on Communication Deficit of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(3), 978–986. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2643-y
Bell, A., Palace, K., Allen, M., & Nelson, R. (2016). Using Martial Arts to Address Social and Behavioral Functioning in Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 50(2), 176–180. https://doi.org/10.18666/trj-2016-v50-i2-7287
Bremer, E., Crozier, M., & Lloyd, M. (2016). A systematic review of the behavioural outcomes following exercise interventions for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20(8), 899–915. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361315616002
Bridges, H. (2015). Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: How the Polyvagal Theory and Brain Plasticity Help Us Make Sense of Autism. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Caldwell, P., & Horwood, J. (2008). Using Intensive Interaction and Sensory Integration: A Handbook for Those who Support People with Severe Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Cozolino, L. (2013). The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom. W. W. Norton & Company.
Garcia, J. M., Cathy, B. S., Garcia, A. V., Shurack, R., Brazendale, K., Leahy, N., Fukuda, D., & Lawrence, S. (2021). Transition of a Judo Program from In-Person to Remote Delivery During COVID-19 for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 5(2), 227–232. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-021-00198-7
Horowitz, L., & Röst, C. (2007). Helping Hyperactive Kids - A Sensory Integration Approach: Techniques and Tips for Parents and Professionals. Hunter House Publishers.
Kimmel, M., & Rogler, C. R. (2019). The anatomy of antagonistic coregulation: Emergent coordination, path dependency, and the interplay of biomechanic parameters in Aikido. Human Movement Science, 63, 231–253. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2018.08.008
Movahedi, A., Bahrami, F., Marandi, S. M., & Abedi, A. (2013). Improvement in social dysfunction of children with autism spectrum disorder following long term Kata techniques training. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7(9), 1054–1061. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2013.04.012
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. W. W. Norton & Company.
Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. W. W. Norton & Company.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton Company.
Rivera, P., Renziehausen, J., & Garcia, J. M. (2020). Effects of an 8-Week Judo Program on Behaviors in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Mixed-Methods Approach. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 51(5), 734–741. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-020-00994-7
UNESCO & UNESCO-ICM. (2019). Youth Development Through Martial Arts: An Evaluation Framework for Youth Activities. https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/youth-development-through-martial-arts-evaluation-framework-youth-activities
Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You? Adfo Books.
※ Views in this writing are the author's own.